Freedom of the Press
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Sierra Leone continues to recover from its long civil war and the political instability of earlier years. The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the retention of the Public Order Act of 1965 continues to threaten the enjoyment of this freedom in practice. The Public Order Act criminalizes libel and holds accountable not only journalists, but also vendors, printers, and publishers. In these cases, the burden of proof rests with the accused, and even then truth is not always an adequate defense. Under this law, the editor of the Standard Times, Philip Neville, was arrested in August and charged with criminal libel after publishing an editorial on the front page of the newspaper critical of the government in the wake of a visit by Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya. The opinion piece alleged that the government did not publicly disclose gifts made to Sierra Leone by the Libyan leader. The office of President Tejan Kabbah issued a statement saying there was “no iota of truth in the publication” and demanded “immediate action” be taken against the newspaper. The Standard Times carried the government’s rebuttal. When Neville appeared at a court in the capital city of Freetown, bail for his release from prison was set at a record US$68,150 in addition to other stringent conditions. All charges against the editor were later dropped after the newspaper retracted the story.
In May, parliament passed an amendment to the media code of practice that provided guidelines for media coverage of public affairs. The code required media to be guided by broad principles of democratization, pluralism, diversity, cultural sensitivity, and responsibility. The media also signed a code of conduct that was aimed at discouraging hate radio and sensational xenophobic publications ahead of the August–September presidential and parliamentary elections. Although the measures probably helped avert the worst excesses in the preelection period, they did not completely eliminate problematic broadcasts or prevent reprisals against local media in some cases. For example, a station was briefly shut down in Yele for broadcasting material unfavorable to the incumbent Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). And in June, a member of parliament shut down a community radio station in Pujehun district after a broadcast criticized the SLPP for being corrupt and inept. Separately in February, a radio station in the district of Koinadugu was besieged by a group of youths accusing the station of inciting ethnic hatred and forced it temporarily to cease its broadcast. However, on the whole journalists agree that incidents of violence against the media have decreased markedly in recent years.
Along with the election came a successful transition to a new government; the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) party won both the presidential election and a majority in parliament, and the SLPP leaders stepped down peacefully. However, the preelection period was predictably charged with tension; politicians and their media allies on both sides traded charges of biased reporting, threats, and physical violence. Radio stations that belonged to the SLPP and the APC helped fuel the tension, prompting the Independent Media Commission (IMC)—which has a reputation for acting independently of government—to ask the two stations to “tone down” for the sake of peace.
Foreign journalists did not entirely escape this hostility and violence; they were often similarly accused of partisan support and were required to obtain a license from the IMC upon entry. In September, the IMC issued a directive to media houses barring them from publishing critical comments on or discussing United Nations personnel and other international community members in Sierra Leone. The IMC said it was pressured into issuing the directive by the Office of National Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after it received complaints from the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL). The UNIOSIL said it was a target of offensive articles in a number of newspapers, including Awareness Times, Democrat, and Salone Times. Despite this IMC directive, the commission is typically credited with helping to improve the professionalism of media practice in Sierra Leone. The boom in the media sector and the improving viability of media ventures can be credited partly to the commission’s oversight, despite the fact that capacity constraints have so far prevented the IMC from operating outside of Freetown.
More than 35 newspapers now publish, many of them privately owned, a number affiliated with political parties, and several openly critical of the government. Poor journalistic training, instances of self-censorship, and corruption within the media sector continued to weaken the capacity of professional media practice. Internet access is slowly penetrating the country as it continues to recover from the disruption caused by a lengthy civil war; 0.2 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2007, and at least five separate internet service providers were operating in the country.