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SIERRA LEONE: Banned Opposition Radio Station Goes to Court

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Sep 28 2009 (IPS) - Sierra Leone's largest opposition party has taken the country's media monitoring body to court for banning its radio station.

The Independent Media Commission (IMC) banned the Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (SLPP) station, Radio Unity, in March. This followed political clashes between the SLPP supporters and the ruling All Peoples' Congress (APC). The APC’s station, Rising Sun, was also banned.

Just before the Rising Sun’s suspension, the station broadcast messages claiming the SLPP had mobilised former militia fighters at its Freetown office to unleash terror on city residents. The outcome of that broadcast was an attack on the SLPP at its Freetown office.

The SLPP and APC’s radio stations were taken off air for what the media watchdog says was "incitement and non-compliance with the media code of ethics".

The SLPP dismisses this charge, insisting the ban was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the reason given by the commission. The party also claims that the APC’s station was merely banned to justify the banning of Radio Unity. And it plans to fight its case in court.

"The IMC's reason for banning our radio station was purely political. The ruling party knew our station was a thorn in its flesh, and so it was in its interests to take such a decision. We are now in court to seek redress," claims Jacob Jusu Saffa, secretary-general of the SLPP.

He told IPS that the inclusion of the APC mouthpiece in the ban was simply to justify the action taken against Radio Unity. Saffa accuses the commission of colluding with the ruling party to stifle freedom of speech and expression, a charge the commission strongly denies.

The courts resume sittings at the end of December, after a three-month recess, and the SLPP application is expected to be heard then. It is expected to be followed with great interest, given that it is politically charged and also hinges on human rights, democracy and media freedom.

The two radio stations were established in the run-up to general and presidential elections in 2007, which brought the APC to power, after 15 years in opposition. The establishment of its station gave the APC a big advantage over the SLPP in the polls. Its daily broadcast, along with growing discontent among the electorate at the performance of the SLPP, won it significant votes.

But since the APC assumed office SLPP’s Radio Unity has taken centre-stage in criticising the government. Its attacks over the performance of APC officials often angered the ruling party. This attracted more listeners, and caused support for the APC to dwindle, just two years into the party's rule.

This is not to say the APC's own radio station did not have a wide audience. It became an efficient propaganda organ for the party, with its supporters using it to justify every action of the APC, and helping to further party unity.

Information and Communication minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo told IPS the government had no hand in banning the two stations. "The decision to ban the two radio stations was purely that of the IMC. They have a clear mandate to regulate both the print and electronic media. We are not contesting their decision because we believe in their independence and neutrality," Kargbo said.

Kargbo supports the IMC decision, saying the two political stations were leading the country to the path of "national disunity, regional divide and creating a stumbling block to reconciliation".

But this view is not generally accepted by the wider public and media watchers. Many believe the ban on the two stations is nothing but the revoking of media freedom in the country.

Hadji Bah, a spokesperson for the rights monitoring group Democracy-Sierra Leone, opines: "We are totally opposed to the ban slammed on the two radio stations. It is unacceptable in this our fledgling democracy, and we will support all efforts to get the decision overturned."

Political commentator Joseph Johnson in the capital says; "I do not belong to any political party, but I believe the existence of the SLPP radio constantly kept the government on its toes, while giving voice to the ordinary people. The ban must be lifted, it negates the values of democracy."

Sierra Leone has had a chequered history in media freedom in recent years. A bloody 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, and successive military regimes, brought the media under serious censorship and practitioners were prosecuted or jailed.

There is also an obsolete law, the 1965 Public Order Act, which the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been battling to get scrapped. It criminalises libel, and has seen many journalists thrown into jail. It is yet to be expunged from the statute books.

Like the campaign against the criminal libel laws, as contained in the Public Order Act, SLAJ is challenging the government to lift the ban on the two political radio stations. Its president, Umaru Fofana, told IPS the association was firmly behind the SLPP and independent advocates to see this done.

"We believe the banning of the two stations is ominous for media freedom and plurality. The IMC is authorised to monitor and regulate the media and not to ban them. This is a clear blow to freedom of speech and expression. The decision must be overturned."

With the closure of the two radio stations the government says an alternative has been found – the transformation of national broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, into a public corporation. It now becomes the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), with corporate status, and it is claimed to be is autonomous and politically independent. The authorities say this will give equal voice to all shades of political opinion, and enhance free speech and expression. But both the SLAJ and the opposition disagree with the official position.

The SLAJ questions the idea that the director-general of SLBC will be appointed by the president, as this would result in the corporation boss being answerable to the president, and probably leaning towards the party in power. This was the case under the old SLPP, where the state broadcaster became mouthpiece for the government of the day, and the opposition was denied air time.

Given this climate of suspicion, civil society has stepped in with its own ideas of resolving the situation. Charles Mambu, chairman of a coalition of civil society organisations, says there is a need for the government, SLAJ, the IMC and the opposition to sit together and thrash out solutions.

"As rights monitors we think any attempt to muzzle the Press, either by proscription or imprisonment of journalists, is unacceptable. The media's role in informing and educating the people is vital, especially in this country where we are just awakening to democracy," Mambu says.

He suggests such a debate could be widened into a national consultative conference that would include other stakeholders in the democratic process.

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