From the Editor’s Keyboard

The President did not say the truth

22 June 2007 at 09:55 | 709 views

We think president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone veered away from the truth when he said recently in parliament:"It is also noteworthy that during our ten years in office, no publishing house has been attacked or vandalized by government agencies nor any journalist detained for criticizing the government."
We have to say the president’s statement did not reflect reality as journalists were routinely attacked and their premises vandalized during the ten year rule of the SLPP.In fact more journalists were detained, jailed, killed or forced into exile during the rule of the SLPP headed by Tejan Kabbah(photo) than any other government in Sierra Leone including military governments.As a tiny example, here is a Reporters without Borders report on Sierra Leone for the year 2002:

Sierra Leone - Annual report 2002

For the first time since 1996, no journalists were killed in Sierra Leone during the year. Yet the political and economic context in which the independent press is managing to survive is still very difficult

After two very dark years for journalists (nine killed in 1999 and three in 2000), the situation improved considerably in 2001. A return to some degree of calm in the streets of the capital has enabled journalists to work in conditions resembling normality. The press remains highly politicised and focuses primarily on issues concerning the government and events in the capital. Few journalists report what is happening in the provinces.

Information minister Julius Spencer, behind the introduction of military censorship of news in 1998, resigned in May 2001. He was replaced by Cecil Blake, "an internationally recognised researcher in communication", according to the government.

The newspaper Expo Times was launched again early in the year by its managing editor Ibrahim Seaga Shaw. This journalist had gone into exile in Europe after being harassed. After his departure Expo times, very popular in the mid-1990s, had closed down.

Two journalists arrested

Police arrested Pious Foray, managing editor of the daily The Democrat on 6 February 2001 in Freetown. He was accused of publishing an article claiming that President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was starting to fear for his life, especially after the assassination of Congolese president Laurent-Désiré Kabila a few days earlier. The daily added that the president had dismissed one of his bodyguards known to be close to former president Joseph Momoh. Pious Foray was interrogated for several hours before being released. The premises of The Democrat were searched by the police.

Pasco Temple, local correspondent for Reporters Without Borders and the news agency PANA, was detained for over an hour on 5 October in a cell at Pademba Road prison in Freetown. The journalist had gone to meet a friend when a magistrate accused him of contempt of court and told a policeman to lock him up.

Two journalists attacked

On 8 October 2001 Alhaji Jalloh, reporter for the privately-owned bi-weekly African Champion, was hit by United Nations soldiers while covering a demonstration in the capital. The journalist affirms that his assailants were Nigerians. His camera and cell phone were destroyed.

On the same day Joseph Vandi, reporter for the privately-owned daily The Salone Times, was manhandled by UNAMSIL (UN mission in Sierra Leone) agents trying to control a group of war veterans demanding overdue wages. The UNAMSIL spokesperson said that an inquiry had been opened into this assault.

Eight journalists threatened

On 8 July 2001 a reporter for the weekly Week-end Spark, Abdul Kuyateh, affirmed that a member of parliament had threatened to kill him. The journalist had denounced several scandals in which the MP was allegedly involved.

On 14 September seven journalists with the private-sector press received a letter with death threats, signed by an unknown group called "Danger Squad". According to this letter, the journalists wrote "negative articles" and, if they did not stop, "their earthly existence [would] be ended". David Tam Baryoh from the Media Centre, Jonathan Leigh, managing editor of The Independent Observer, Pious Foray, managing editor of The Democrat, Richard Olu Gordon, managing editor of Peep, Paul Kamara, managing editor of For di People, Chernor Ojuku Sesay of Pool, and Philip Neville, managing editor of Standard Times, all received the letter.

Pressure and obstruction

On 27 June 2001 five officials, including two cabinet ministers, lodged a complaint with the independent media commission. The managing editors of For di People, Weekly Star, The Independent Observer, Week-end Spark and the radio station Voice of the Handicapped were accused of "libel" and "publishing false news". The independent media commission was set up by the authorities in 2001 to regulate the profession. Many observers have doubts as to its impartiality, especially since its members are paid by the government. The commission’s head office is in the buildings of the information ministry.