Freedom of the Press
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In the wake of the Ebola crisis, the Sierra Leonean government has been sensitive to criticism and reluctant to permit unabridged press freedom. Government officials, judicial authorities, and the media regulator targeted many of the country’s most prominent publishers and broadcasters with fines, warnings, or the threat of arrest during 2015, leading to self-censorship and, in one case, forcing a journalist into hiding.
- The Independent Media Commission (IMC) issued 19 fines against newspapers and radio stations between February and May 2015, in most cases for alleged inaccuracy.
- In December, the editor of the Independent Observer was arrested and charged with publishing false information. The paper had incurred multiple sanctions from the IMC over the preceding year.
Legal Environment: 16 / 30 (↓1)
Sierra Leone’s constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press, although these rights are sometimes restricted in practice. During 2015, government and judicial officials repeatedly warned journalists not to report on certain topics.
Under the colonial-era Public Order Act of 1965, criminal defamation is punishable by prison terms of three to seven years, while the separate crime of publishing false news is punishable by up to two years in prison. In December 2015, police arrested editor Jonathan Leigh of the Independent Observer for publishing an article on a recent outbreak of political violence in Kono District. He was charged with publishing false information and released on bail after about four days in detention.
The 2013 Right to Access Information Act includes penalties for government agencies that fail to comply with its provisions on information requests. A Right to Access Information Commission was formed in 2015 to help implement the law, but its executive secretary said in late October that no journalists had submitted any requests to date.
Media in Sierra Leone are regulated by the IMC, whose members are appointed by the president on the advice of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and subject to the approval of Parliament, according to the Independent Media Commission Act of 2000 as amended in 2006 and 2007. The IMC provides an alternative to litigation under the Public Order Act; aggrieved parties can register complaints with the commission, which grants them a hearing. If the IMC agrees that a complaint of defamation or falsehood is valid, it can impose a fine as well as require the offending outlet to publish a retraction and an apology. The IMC can also summon editors at its own discretion.
Between February and May 2015, the IMC imposed 19 fines—which ranged as high as $3,700—on newspapers and radio stations for alleged violations of the IMC Act and the Media Code of Practice of 2007. The commission also temporarily suspended two newspapers for failing to pay fines, and issued three warnings. Several of the offending articles and broadcasts had been critical of government figures and members of Parliament. While the alleged infractions included indecency, defamation, and failure to print required information about the publisher, most fines involved claims of inaccuracy. The fines were accompanied by instructions to publish retractions and issue apologies.
In February, a government spokesman confirmed plans to develop a cybersecurity law that would regulate social media, though no draft was immediately forthcoming. Social media had gained prominence in the preceding months as a means of publicizing antigovernment protests and related arrests, amid complaints that traditional media had been compromised by government pressure.
Political Environment: 21 / 40 (↓2)
The government frequently interferes with the work of journalists and media outlets in an attempt to control content. In February 2015, Ibrahim Bundu, the majority leader in Parliament, warned journalists to cease discussing the auditor general’s report on the management of the country’s Ebola Fund, or risk being found in contempt of Parliament. The SLAJ complained that the threat contradicted the constitution’s provisions on media freedom and government accountability, and noted that previous reports from the auditor general had not be similarly restricted. In March, the IMC chairman instructed media outlets not to publish irresponsible content about President Ernest Bai Koroma’s controversial dismissal of Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana. Sierra Leone’s judiciary also advised the media “to desist from all discussions and expressions of opinions on the matter” until the Supreme Court could rule on the legality of Sam-Sumana’s removal; the court upheld the president’s decision in September.
The government’s increasingly aggressive intimidation of journalists has entailed both censorship and self-censorship. In late January, David Tam-Baryoh, host of the program Monologue on the private broadcaster Citizen Radio, declined an “invitation” by the Criminal Investigations Department to cooperate with a case involving his work. In November 2014 the journalist had been arrested and detained for 10 days without charges under an executive order, apparently in connection with his criticism of the government’s handling of the Ebola crisis. In February, Citizen Radio’s station manager, Tamba Fanday, went into hiding out of fear that he too would be arrested under a presidential order. Fanday said he had likely angered the government with his criticism of other arbitrary arrests and broader governance problems. Citizen Radio decided to temporarily cease broadcasting all discussion programs. In August, the IMC suspended Monologue in response to a complaint by the minister of transport and aviation, whose handling of a bus procurement contract had been questioned on air. In suspending the program, the IMC accused Tam-Baryoh of infringing on national peace and state security and inciting public violence and disorder.
Economic Environment: 16 / 30
Sierra Leone has more than 20 regularly published newspapers, approximately 40 radio stations—more than half of which are community stations—and two active terrestrial television stations. The state-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) operates a television service and a radio network. While international media operate freely, foreign outlets are required to register with the government. Most newspapers are independent, though some are associated with political parties, and the print media routinely criticize both the government and opposition parties. All Sierra Leonean newspapers are printed in English, a language spoken by only about a third of the population. Moreover, overall literacy rates are low, and newspapers and television receivers are relatively expensive, making radio—which carries content in local languages—the most important and widely accessed news medium. Poverty, a lack of regular electricity, and illiteracy are also factors behind the low internet penetration rate, which stood at about 2.5 percent in 2015.
Widespread poverty is an obstacle to the financial sustainability of media outlets. Advertising rates are among the lowest in the world, and the management and operational structures of outlets are not always efficient or profitable. The number of community radio stations has proliferated in recent years, but many are not sustainable due to their dependence on foreign grants to meet high operational expenses. Journalists are often untrained and poorly paid, leading them into situations that can cause conflicts of interest. Economic insecurity leaves journalists more vulnerable to editorial pressure from owners, advertisers, and other businesses.