Lagos, Nigeria, October 24, 2013--Authorities in Sierra Leone should immediately release two reporters being held on charges of sedition and libel in connection with a story criticizing President Ernest Bai Koroma, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Police in the capital, Freetown, arrested Jonathan Leigh, publisher of the daily Independent Observer, and Bai Bai Sesay, the paper's editor, on Friday, according to news reports. The two were charged on Wednesday with 26 counts of seditious and defamatory libel against Koroma. Kelvin Lewis, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), told CPJ that the journalists face up to three years in jail if convicted.
Leigh and Sesay were charged under the 1965 Public Order Act, under which any person who prints, publishes, sells, or distributes any publication deemed seditious can be fined and handed prison terms of up to seven years. The journalists are being held at Pademba Road maximum-security prison. Their next court appearance is scheduled for October 29, news reports said.
The charges stemmed from an October 17 opinion article, called "Who is Molesting Who: the President or the VP?" published in the Independent Observer. The article likened the president to a rat and dictator, according to CPJ's review. It also criticized Koroma in connection with his widely reported feud with Vice President Sam Sumana.
On Monday, the All People's Congress political party additionally filed a civil suit against the journalists and the paper, according to news reports. Information Minister Alpha Kanu said in a radio interview that the suit was on behalf of Koroma, the "chairman and leader of the APC party," the reports said.
"Sierra Leone's hard-won advances in freedom of the press have been seriously set back with this abuse of colonial-era laws to prosecute, jail, and bully journalists," said Peter Nkanga, CPJ's West Africa consultant. "We call on Sierra Leone authorities to drop all criminal charges against Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay and release them immediately."
Police have harassed journalists and media outlets in an attempt to identify the printing press that the Independent Observer used to print the story, local journalists told CPJ. On Monday, police searched the offices of another paper, Premier News, and temporarily detained some staff members, Lewis told CPJ.
On Tuesday, police entered the offices of the Concord Times newspaper with a search warrant, demanding access to the newspaper's printing records so they could search for evidence linking to the Independent Observer article, according to news reports. The Concord Times staff repeatedly had to report for questioning at the police station, Fidelis Adele, general manager of the paper, told CPJ.
Lewis told CPJ that editors of local newspapers Global Times and Salone Times were questioned by police on Wednesday in connection with accusations of seditious libel by a presidential aide. It is unclear what stories the allegations referred to. Donald Harding, editor of Salone Times, told CPJ that he believed staff members might be summoned to appear in court.