This year’s State of the Media report has just come out in Sierra Leone, and among other things it highlights that harassment of journalists by politicians is still common practice. The report, published by the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI), says that in 2010 alone, 25 journalists were ‘beaten, unduly arrested or manhandled’ by government workers.
Some of the recent incidents include the arrest of four print media journalists allegedly ordered by the Ministry of Lands for investigating an alleged fraud case. In November last year 10 journalists were allegedly beaten by supporters of the opposition party the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). No charges were filed against them. Journalists in Sierra Leone are often at the receiving end of verbal abuse – like Kadijatu Sesay a female journalist who was verbally attacked by a bank MD when she tried to investigate charges of staff maltreatment. One of the best remembered cases of political harassment was around the time when Hafsatu Kabbah, the former minister of fisheries and marine resources, was being prosecuted on corruption charges. Journalists were denied entry into the courtroom and the BBC’s resident reporter Umaru Fofana even received death threats.
An archaic law called the 1965 Public Order Act is still used to punish dissenting media. One of its clauses deems libel criminal and seditious and a number of journalists in the country have spent time behind bars because of it. The commonly cited case is that of Paul Kamara, editor of a Freetown based newspaper called For di Pipul, who spent 13 months in prison for criticising former president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has fought long and hard for this libel clause to be reviewed but in 2009 the Supreme Court upheld it despite months of campaigning and a peaceful protest by journalists.
The political harassment of journalists is a serious problem in Sierra Leone, especially since the country is heading towards national and local elections in 2012. But there’s the flipside as well. Media in Sierra Leone are largely partisan and unprofessional. The situation turned dire in 2009 when the political radio stations owned by the ruling APC (All People’s Congress) and the opposition SLPP had to be closed down for inciting violence. Newspapers based in Freetown regularly make their money from political mudslinging and extortion from politicians.
So yes, Sierra Leone is a bad place to be a journalist, more so if you’re a bad journalist. Twenty five harassments in one calendar year definitely pose a threat to an independent media – but so does unprofessional and politically motivated journalism.