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RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: Journalists Under Attack

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Mar 30 2010 (IPS) - Sierra Leone has become a place of torment for journalists practicing their profession.

Secretary-general of the SLAJ, Mustapha Sesay, says the association will fight against the intimidation of the press. Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

Secretary-general of the SLAJ, Mustapha Sesay, says the association will fight against the intimidation of the press. Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

Recently 10 journalists were manhandled and beaten during the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party’s (SLPP) delegate’s conference. At the conference, the delegates had a disagreement during their debate to amend the party’s constitution.

“Some members began to walk out of the hall, we (journalists) wanted to capture this moment and do interviews, but we were surprised when youths and senior party members fell on us. They beat us, confiscated our cameras, recorders and then prevented us from covering some of the other sessions,” explained Ishmael Bayoh, one of the journalists who was attacked. Bayoh works for Awoko newspaper, a local tabloid.

But this is not an isolated incident, it follows several other persecutions by public officials and ordinary citizens on journalists.

Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO that seeks to protect the interest of journalists, reported that in February 2009 four journalists were abducted and intimidated by members of a women’s secret society that practices female genital mutilation (FGM). One of the abducted journalists was forced to walk naked through the streets of the city because they had been conducting a series of interviews in order to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM. The matter was reported to the police but the women were not prosecuted.

In September 2009, the correspondent for Standard Times, Fayia Amara, was beaten up by a police constable for trying to photograph the constable allegedly smoking marijuana.

Another recent incident was the alleged threatening calls received by radio journalist Melvin Rogers, from the Deputy Minister of Labour, Employment and Industrial Relations, Moijue Kaikai.

Rogers filed a report on a local station, Radio Democracy 98.1, on Feb. 25 alleging that Kaikai had visited Lugbu, Bo District in the run-up to the recent local council by-election. He had allegedly done so after reported violence in the area, allegedly fuelled by government officials, had led the president to issue a warning that all persons not involved in the conduct of the elections should avoid the area.

The director of Society for Democratic Initiatives, a media advocacy group, and some of his staff members, reported that they received death threats after publishing a report highlighting the press conditions in the country.

The report lashed out against the continued use of the Criminal Libel Law, which the report states is hampering the work of journalists. Under the law, a journalist or anybody who writes and publishes material considered libellous can be arrested and jailed, whether or not what they published was true.

The report also catalogues over seven cases of assault on journalists and the fact that nothing was done by police about these incidents.

“These attacks and many more are calculated attacks on journalist to gag us and deprive us of our freedom of expression,” said Bayoh.

The secretary general of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Mustapha Sesay, said that these continued attacks on journalists and the inability or willful neglect by the police to prosecute these matters shows that the state is against journalists.

“The association will fight tooth and nail against those who think that they can get away with intimidation to restrain the press,” he vowed.

The Minister of Information, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, said it is very unfortunate that members of the media were subject to attacks, but stated that government upholds the right to freedom of expression and would protect the lives of its citizens.

Bankole Morgan, the regional officer of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone condemned the attacks and the intimidation of journalists. He said journalists must be free to ask tough questions and demand accountability from their elected officials.

“I am so afraid now as I am practicing my profession. I don’t know when my very presence will threaten and infuriate people and they will beat me up because I am a journalist, or what I write would sooner or later land me in prison because some government official feels slighted,” said Bayoh, who is still recovering from his attack.

Sesay said that the SLPP officials who beat up the 10 journalists have admitted to their crime and agreed to pay the journalists’ medical bills, replace their damaged items and to also compensate them.

“We are actually concerned about compensation, because we do not want people to mistreat journalist and then pay them afterwards,” Sesay said. He referred to an instance where the police paid compensation to several journalists they beat up. The journalists were covering a SLPP stalwart demonstration in March 2009 when the attacks too place.

“As an association we are ready to support our membership to ply their trade without fear or favour and nobody will continue to trample on our rights,” Sesay said.

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