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Sierra Leonean activists and journalists harassed, accused of defamation

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is gravely concerned about the current spate of wanton application of criminal libel and defamation laws against journalists in Sierra Leone.

The last six months have witnessed a raging resurgence of arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists by the Sierra Leonean police – mainly based on complaints by government ministers and other state officials over what they (the government officials) often claim are defamatory publications. Within the last six months, at least five senior journalists have been arrested and detained by the country's police at the instance of government officials.

The latest in the series of arrests and detentions happened on January 15, 2014, when officers from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sierra Leonean police arrested Dr. Julious Spencer and Alusine Sesay, managing director of Premier Media and editor of Premier News respectively. The two were arrested based on a complaint by the country's Information Minister, Alpha Kanu, alleging that the newspaper had published a story deemed defamatory by the government.

According to the MFWA's rights monitor in the country, Dr. Spencer, a prominent pro-democracy activist, was detained alongside the editor for several hours before being granted bail. While the journalists were in police custody, police personnel raided the offices of Premier Media and confiscated multiple media equipment including computers. Prior to the arrest of Dr. Spencer and Sesay, officers from the CID had, on January 2, 104, arrested and detained Dr. David Tam-Baryoh, a human rights activist and radio presenter, for several hours.

Dr. Tam-Baryoh's arrest followed a complaint to the police by the Minister for Transport and Aviation, Balogun Logus Koroma, over a text message he had received from the radio presenter. Confirmed reports indicate that Dr.Tam-Baryoh had sent a text message to the minister seeking clarification on an alleged threat by him (the minister) to "deal with him" and also shut down the radio station that he (Dr. Tam-Baryoh) works for.

According to a subsequent statement issued by Dr. Tam-Baryoh and sighted by MFWA's monitor, he expressed shock at the treatment meted to him by the minister and the police. He stated in his statement: "I am hurt, feel disadvantaged and unfairly treated by both the police and the minister. I advise the police to be fair and professional in their performance, especially in dealing with journalists being reported by politicians."

Earlier on October 18, 2013, two journalists, Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay, managing editor and editor of the Independent Observer newspaper respectively, were arrested for the publication of an article deemed critical of the country's President, Ernest Bai Koroma. After their arrest, the two editors were detained for six days without bail and without any charges. They were subsequently taken to court and charged with 26 counts of seditious and defamatory libel. Eleven other journalists were interrogated by police within the same week (some detained) 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. 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," Kelvin Lewis, president of SLAJ told the MFWA, following the arrest and detention Leigh and Sesay.

We call on the Sierra Leonean authorities to cease the ongoing harassment, and act in ways that promote and protect the rights of journalists. We also urge the Sierra Leonean authorities to give meaning to the latest United Nations Resolution on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

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