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Sierra Leonean editors face 26 counts of libel over article about president

People walk past a campaign poster for President Ernest Bai Koroma. Two Sierra Leonean editors are currently facing charges for
People walk past a campaign poster for President Ernest Bai Koroma. Two Sierra Leonean editors are currently facing charges for "defaming" the president in a recent news article.

AP Photo/Tommy Trenchard

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is demanding the immediate release from prison of two Sierra Leonean journalists, Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay, managing editor and editor, respectively, of the Independent Observer.

The two editors were arrested by police in the Sierra Leonean Capital, Freetown, on October 18 for the publication of an article critical of the country's President, Ernest Bai Koroma.

The article, entitled "Who is Molesting Who: The President or the VP?" had compared President Koroma's actions to [those of] a rat and also criticised the president's alleged bad relationship with his deputy, Sam Sumana.

After their arrest, the two editors were detained for six days without bail and without any charges. They were, however, taken to court on October 23, and charged with 26 counts of seditious and defamatory libel, under sections 33 and 46 of the Sierra Leonean Public Order Act of 1965. If found guilty, Leigh and Sesay will face up to 3 years imprisonment. The case has been adjourned to Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

Eleven other journalists have been interrogated – and some detained by police officers within the week in connection with the publication by the Independent Observer.

Officials of the Sierra Leonean Association of Journalists (SLAJ) have said the ongoing crackdown on press freedom is a manifestation of the government's lack of commitment to press freedom and freedom of expression.

"This is an attack on the press which has not been seen since the end of the war," Kelvin Lewis, president of SLAJ said. "It is a sad day for democracy. The journalists' 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," he added.

The MFWA is alarmed by the continuous detention of the two editors and the general deterioration of press freedom and freedom of expression conditions in Sierra Leone.

We are calling on the Sierra Leonean Police Service to allow the statutory media regulatory body, the Independent Media Commission (IMC), to handle media-related complaints as mandated by the Constitution. We also urge the international community to join in demanding the immediate release of the two journalists and to get the 26 count charges dropped.

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