Despite the transfer of power from military ruler Gen. Julius Maada Bio to newly elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in March, the government and its officials continue to threaten press freedom in Sierra Leone. Independent journalists routinely face harassment, detention without charge, and charges of sedition, libel, or contempt of parliament for their coverage of government corruption, the civil war, and human rights issues.

During the election campaign and in its aftermath, the promise of a democratic society encouraged the launch of a number of newspapers. Yet contrary to expectations, the government of President Kabbah has shown intolerance toward criticism of its policies or officials by banning newspapers that publish uncomplimentary articles and detaining journalists. The frequent use of criminal libel and sedition charges against independent journalists has encouraged self-censorship, and the imposition of heavy fines is financially crippling the private press.

In May, the parliament passed a set of guidelines restricting journalists from reporting on committee decisions and secret sessions. These guidelines also defined the charge of "contempt of parliament," the basis for the arrest of Sheka Parawali, editor of Torchlight and editor Gibril Koroma and reporter Max Jimmy of Expo Times. The parliament sentenced some of the journalists charged with contempt without the benefit of trial or even a court appearance.

In October, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) submitted a revised code of conduct and a 20-point media proposal to the Ministry of Information that called for the removal of all government licensing procedures of the press, the establishment of state corporations to guarantee the independence of Sierra Leone Broadcasting Services (SLBS), and the creation of a press council to arbitrate public complaints against the media.

In February 1997, Minister of Information Abdul-Thorlu Bangura is scheduled to present Parliament with a bill promulgating further press-freedom restrictions. The bill is expected to require, as a condition of permission to publish, that publications obtain insurance policies covering future libel charges and maintain collateral assets for use in defending such suits. Parliament is also slated to take up the issue of proposed qualifications for editors and publishers that would restrict entry into the journalism profession.

While some private radio stations have received licenses, the registration process has favored politically well-connected entrepreneurs. Currently, five private radio stations are fully operational; three of them air programming produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Radio France Internationale.

July 19
Edison Yongai, The Point, IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Yongai, editor of the independent newspaper The Point, was arrested by five plainclothes Criminal Investigations Department (CID) agents at the newspaper's editorial office, which the agents searched. The arrest was in connection with a story titled "Corrupt Ministers" in the July 18 issue. Yongai was taken to CID headquarters, where he was interrogated. On July 23, he was charged with seditious libel. He was released the following day after paying bail in the amount of 10 million leones (US$11, 000). On Aug. 8, however, Yongai was arrested again, by order of the High Court. The Court set new terms for his case, demanding a higher bail. Yongai was unable to pay the additional bail and spent the night in Pademba Road Prison before being released on Aug. 9. Charges against Yongai were unofficially dropped before his scheduled hearing date of Oct. 10.

August 28
Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Expo Times, IMPRISONED, HARASSED
Gibril Koroma, Expo Times, HARASSED

Ten Central Investigation Department (CID) officers searched the editorial offices of the Expo Times for "subversive documents" and arrested publisher and editor in chief Shaw and news editor Koroma. The search and arrests were in connection with an Aug. 28 story about the Sierra Leone government's interception of a message from rebel leader Foday Sankoh of the Revolutionary United Front. The message contained instructions to his forces to begin fighting, which would effectively put an end to a cease-fire in Sierra Leone's civil war. CID agents failed to uncover any documents related to the article. Koroma was released from CID custody one hour later. Shaw continues to be detained without charge at CID headquarters. In a letter to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, CPJ asked for Shaw's unconditional release and the cessation of CID harassment of journalists.

September 6
Torchlight, CENSORED

Minister of Information George Banda Thomas banned Torchlight, a new independent newspaper that was to come out twice a week, on the same day the first issue was published. The newspaper, sponsored by the opposition United National People's Party (UNPP), was banned on the grounds that its first issue contained uncomplimentary articles about President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. Thomas retracted the ban the same day and gave Torchlight permission to publish until after an upcoming government review of proposed changes to the press law.

October 9
Max Jimmy, Expo Times, ATTACKED

Jimmy, a staff writer for Expo Times, was assaulted by Special Security Department (SSD) officers in front of Vice President Joe Demby's office as he was leaving the premises. Jimmy had gone to Demby's office to confirm information alleging that a deputy minister, Theresa Koroma, had granted a nongovernment employee the use of an official government vehicle. SSD officers refused to allow him to speak with Koroma but referred him to Permanent Secretary Aiah Ngongor to get the necessary permission. Ngongor refused to speak to Jimmy about the alleged case.

October 11
Sheka Parawali, Torchlight, IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Parawali, editor of the independent newspaper Torchlight, was sentenced to one month in prison after appearing before Parliament to answer charges of contempt of Parliament. The charges were in connection with an Oct. 8 article titled "Kabbah Bribes MPs," referring to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. In a letter to Kabbah, CPJ denounced Parawali's conviction without trial. Parawali was released on Nov. 11.

October 12
Hilton Fyle, 1 2 3, LEGAL ACTION

Fyle, editor of the weekly newspaper 1 2 3 and a former announcer for the BBC's Africa Service, was charged with "seditious publication." The charge was in connection with a story published in the newspaper's Oct. 7 issue that alleged that justice officials had accepted bribes to drop a fraud case against a former foreign minister and a businessman. Fyle pleaded not guilty, and was freed on bail of 10 million leones (US$10, 000). In a letter to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, CPJ condemned the use of seditious libel statutes because they silence critical reporting of the government.

November 5
Gibril Koroma, Expo Times, LEGAL ACTION
Max Jimmy, Expo Times, LEGAL ACTION

Expo Times acting editor Koroma and reporter Jimmy pleaded not guilty to charges of contempt of Parliament before the Parliament Privileges Committee. The charge was in connection with an Oct. 29 article alleging that commercial banks had been pressured by the government to loan members of Parliament 320 million leones (US$34, 042, 550) to buy Mercedes Benz automobiles for their personal use. The members of Parliament maintain that the loans were personal, but parliamentarians have a history of failing to pay off their own loans, allowing the government to assume responsibility for the debts. Koroma and Jimmy's case, which had been scheduled to be heard by the full Parliament on Nov. 18, was postponed indefinitely.

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