Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Sierra Leone
As of December 31, 1998

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The notion that the state is justified in censoring journalists during wartime to protect troops and maintain national security has been shot full of holes in Sierra Leone. The official strategy of attempting to control unfavorable coverage of the ongoing conflict between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the combined forces of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backfired as the RUF advanced on Freetown at the end of the year. The population of the city, the government, and the Nigerian-led West African Peacekeeping Forces (ECOMOG) were apparently all caught unawares. As the RUF increasingly threatened Freetown, the government continued to maintain that "everything was under control." Freetown residents; only warning was the approaching sound of gunfire and artillery.

Local journalists firmly believe that if they had been allowed to report freely, civilians alerted to the impending violence could have been prepared with food and supplies to hole up in their homes during the siege, or could have escaped to safer areas of the city. Instead, the RUF rebels entered Freetown in a ferocious assault, resorting to terror tactics including hacking off people's limbs with machetes to punish perceived nonsupporters and send a message to the government. While reporting of ECOMOG positions and troop strengths could possibly put soldiers at risk, local journalists' reports on ECOMOG performance caused more of a political than a security liability. And the government's desire to win the battle of perception by censoring unfavorable war reports may have hurt it militarily. Local journalists, discouraged from reporting any weakness, were thereby restrained from informing an international audience of the inadequate financial and logistical support for ECOMOG.

The government's adversarial relationship with some independent journalists began soon after ECOMOG troops, acting under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), intervened in Sierra Leone and on March 10 reinstated Kabbah, who had been ousted in a May 1997 coup by the AFRC along with help from the RUF guerrillas. The Kabbah government began identifying those who had supported the coup, and commenced sedition prosecutions. On August 23, five journalists were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. (See the synopsis of the legal action against them below.)

Throughout the year, the government continued to react harshly to war coverage and to equate reporting on the conflict from the field with sedition. On December 8, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent Winston Ojukutu-Macauley reported that 8,000 refugees, fleeing heavy fighting, were headed toward Freetown on the highway from the northern part of the interior, and BBC correspondent Sylvester Rogers reported that rebels outside Makeni had killed an ECOMOG soldier. Sierra Leone Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers subsequently arrested the journalists on the order of Information Minister Julius Spencer. Ojukutu-Macauley, Rogers, and BBC correspondent and Concord Times reporter Sulaiman Momodu, who was also arrested by CID officers, were all charged with "false reporting" and "reporting news on the war without clearing their stories in advance with ECOMOG." This action effectively banned war reporting, as military officials were often unavailable to clear stories. On December 9, an official statement on state radio described the journalists' reporting as "unpatriotic behavior and a criminal act which is tantamount to acting as a propagandist for the rebels."

It was clear to many journalists that the government would not tolerate stories that portrayed anything other than government fortitude, and that their fellow citizens were beginning to believe and support the government's hostile position toward the private press. On December 22, a crowd set upon Kabba Kargbo, a free-lance reporter who was working for the independent newspaper Pathfinder, calling him an "alarmist," after his interview on the BBC "Focus on Africa" program. During the interview, Kargbo stated that he had witnessed the December 20 attack by rebels on Waterloo, and that the rebels appeared militarily superior to ECOMOG. CID agents took Kargbo into custody, stating it was "for his own protection."

The RUF has said it will "deal with" certain journalists if they are caught, leaving independent journalists at risk from both President Kabbah's government and the RUF rebel forces. On December 31, Sylvester Rogers was threatened by a rebel commander for his "biased" reporting. Rogers' arrest by the government for similar reasons apparently did not help him in the ongoing propaganda war in a country that now threatens to become the site of some of the worst atrocities since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Attacks on the Press in Sierra Leone in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
12/22/98 Kabba Kargbo, free-lancer Harassed
12/11/98 Mildred Hancile, Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service (SLBS) Imprisoned
12/11/98 Conrad Roy, Expo Times Imprisoned
12/11/98 Mano Mbompa Turay, Eagle Imprisoned
12/11/98 Amadu Jalloh, Liberty Voice Imprisoned
12/8/98 Winston Ojukutu Macauley, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Legal Action
12/8/98 Sylvester Rogers, BBC Imprisoned, Threatened,
Legal Action
12/8/98 Sulaiman Momodu, BBC, Concord Times Harassed
7/15/98 Umaru David, Champion Newspaper Legal Action
7/15/98 David Konteh, Champion Newspaper Legal Action
7/14/98 Foday Fofana, Star Legal Action
7/14/98 Alusine Fofana, Star Legal Action
7/2/98 Joseph Mboka, Democrat Imprisoned
7/2/98 Jonathan Leigh, Independent Observer Imprisoned
7/2/98 Ahmed Kanneh, Newstorm Imprisoned
6/3/98 Print Media Harassed
4/30/98 Punch Harassed
4/13/98 Edward Smith, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Killed
3/31/98 Dennis Smith, SLBS Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 Gipu Felix George, SLBS Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 Olivia Mensah, SLBS Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 Maada Maka Swaray, SLBS Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 William Smith, We Yone Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 Hilton Fyle, WBIG-FM103 Imprisoned, Legal Action
3/31/98 Ibrahim B. Kargbo, Citizen Imprisoned, Legal Action

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