After spending six days in detention without bail, two Sierra Leone journalists were charged with 26 counts of sedition and libel against the country’s leader on Nov. 4. They were arrested after they published an article that compared President Ernest Bai Koroma to a rat. The article, titled "Who is molesting who: the President or the VP?", referenced a reported riff between Koroma and Vice President Sam Sumana.
Jonathan Leigh, managing editor of the independent daily newspaper Independent Observer, and his editor Bai Bai Sesay were initially detained by officials from the Criminal Investigation Department in the capital of Freetown on Oct. 18. Around the same time, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) reported that five media houses and 11 media practitioners were also arrested, interrogated and/or detained by police.
SLAJ lobbied for the journalists release and instituted a media blackout on Oct. 29 to show solidarity. SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis condemned the arrests, stating: “It is a sad day for democracy. The journalists’ Human Rights have been violated by unconstitutionally detaining them for more than three days and as such this government can no longer lay claim to any human rights record again.”
Leigh and Sesay, who both met bail bonds valued at Le500 million (US$115500) on Nov. 4, have since been released. Their trial will adjourn on Nov. 18.
The charges brought forth fall under the 1965 Public Order Act, which assigns fines and jail sentences of up to seven years to those who publish or distribute information deemed subversive. The journalists could face up to three years imprisonment if found guilty.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the president’s party, the All People’s Congress, filed an additional civil suit, which targets journalists as well as the paper.
Just over a decade has passed since Sierra Leone ended 11 years of civil war conflict, during which media rights were highly restricted. Under Koroma’s leadership, which began in 2007, the nation’s media has experienced greater press freedoms. FreedomHouse, an independent global watchdog, reported that Koroma has generally limited crackdowns against the press and has allowed for criticism from opposing parties.
On Oct. 31, Koroma approved a Right to Access Information Act, which will give businesses and citizens more power to access information on public officials and private organizations.
Reuters reported that some rights groups claim that the recent wave of arrests and interrogations represents a change in the government’s attitude toward the press. Sylvia Blyden, the special executive assistant to Koroma, said in June that the nation’s press is due for a massive ‘sanitization’.
FreedomHouse elevated Sierra Leone’s freedom status from ‘partly free’ to ‘free’ over this past year, but its press freedom index still lags behind under the status of ‘partly free’.