With one journalist imprisoned and two news organisations censored, press freedom could not yet be taken for granted in Sierra Leone. No progress was seen in any of the cases of journalists murdered in the past.
Fifteen journalists were killed in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2000. Most fell victim to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel movement that had been fighting the government since 1991. One was executed by soldiers of ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force. These murders remain unpunished.
A Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network delegation went to Sierra Leone in May 2002 in order to start judicial proceedings and try to put an end to this generalised impunity. During the visit, the authorities reiterated their commitment to press freedom and deplored these killings but took no concrete steps to sanction them. The RUF is now a well-established, legal political party that fielded a candidate in the June presidential election, which was won by the incumbent, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
The Independent Media Commission (IMC) – which was set up to act as intermediary between the press, public and authorities – overstepped its authority and did not hesitate to act as censor. Journalists and press organisations complained about the harsh measures taken by the commission against newspapers that were very critical of the government.
New information on journalists killed before 2002
During a fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone in May 2002, representatives of Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network met the widow and former colleagues of Abdul Juma Jalloh, the news editor of the privately-owned tri-weekly African Champion Newspaper, who was murdered in February 1999. They gave their testimony and they agreed to the proposal that the two organisations should start judicial proceedings on their behalf.
While on his way to the printers with the newspaper's managing editor, Mohamed D. Koroma, on 3 February 1999, Jalloh was detained by some 40 members of the Civil Defence Unit (CDU), a civilian intelligence service that had been formed by the government in 1997. Jalloh was then handed over to ECOMOG soldiers stationed outside the president's office (the State House). A dozen of these soldiers led Jalloh down to the seashore, behind Freetown's Connaught hospital, executed him and threw his body into the sea.
The 12 ECOMOG soldiers who carried out the execution have not been identified. However, the names of the persons in charge of the peacekeeping force at that moment are known. Maj. Gen. Abu Amadu was the commander of the ECOMOG force in Sierra Leone. The head of the Freetown garrison was Col. Buhari Musa. Under his direct command, Maj. Tanko was in charge of field operations in Freetown. Finally, the spokesperson and head of press relations was Lt. Col. Chris Olukolade. All are Nigerian nationals who have since left Sierra Leone.
During their May visit, Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network also met relatives of Saoman Conteh, who was killed in May 2000 by supporters of former RUF leader Foday Sankoh. Justice minister Solomon Berewa and the ministry's director for judicial proceedings, Bryma Kebbie, told the two organisations that Sankoh was charged with murder and conspiracy to murder for the events of May 2000 including Conteh's death.
Several hundred people gathered outside Sankoh's home in Freetown on 8 May 2000 to call for peace in Sierra Leone. RUF members on guard outside the house became scared and fired in the air to frighten the demonstrators away. Then one of them opened fire on the crowd. Conteh, a reporter with the privately-owned weekly New Tablet, was covering the event and was hit by shot. He died a few hours later. In all, about 20 people were killed. Sankoh vanished, only to be discovered and arrested by police a few weeks later. Since then, he has been detained in Freetown in an undisclosed location for his own safety.
A journalist imprisoned
One journalist was still in prison at the end of 2002.
The Freetown high court on 12 November found Paul Kamara, editor of the privately-owned daily For Di People, guilty of libelling an appeal court judge, sentenced him to nine months in prison and a fine of 4.5 million leones (2,100 euros) and banned the newspaper from appearing for six months. Judge Methland Tholla Thomson had filed suit on 5 April following several articles calling him a thief, criminal and constitutional swindler, and the publication of his photo with the caption: "This man is dangerous." The sentence was reduced to six months in prison and a fine of 4,500 leones (2.15 euros) on 15 November. Kamara was serving his term in Freetown's Pademba Road prison.
Pressure and obstruction
During the week of 11 March 2002, the IMC shut down the privately-owned daily African Champion Newspaper for two months and banned its managing editor, Mohamed D. Koroma, from working as a journalist for the same period because of a report accusing President Kabbah's son of corruption and claiming that he was protected by his father. On 31 August, the Freetown high court banned the newspaper from appearing until further notice and banned Koroma from working as an editor for any other newspaper in the country. These two bans were lifted at the start of September.
Citing "national security and public safety" concerns, the IMC at the end of August refused to give West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR) a licence to broadcast on the short wave to all of Sierra Leone and to the other countries of the Mano River Union (Liberia and Guinea). The commission noted that Sierra Leone had been destabilised in the pasts by elements in those two countries.