Freedom of the press is guaranteed by law in Sierra Leone. Despite a genuinely diverse media landscape, journalists are sometimes targets of arbitrary arrest and detention.
The media sector is pluralist and generally independent. At the end of 2021, it was made up of 191 radio stations, 23 television networks, 229 newspapers, 24 magazines and 11 digital satellite television stations. Alongside the state-owned broadcaster, SLBC, the leading private media are the AYV TV television network, Democracy radio, the Awoko and Standard Times Newspaper dailies and NewsWatch Magazine. Community radio stations cover much of the country and are accessible to a large part of the population. Except for satellite television and digital television providers (DSTV and DTV, respectively), access to the content of online publications, and to radio and television broadcasts is free.
Most media outlets are free of direct control by politicians, who, by law, are only authorised to found publications, and not radio stations or television networks. Nevertheless, the media are in fact under politicians’ influence due to their lack of financial resources and inadequate management.
In 2020, a 1965 law penalising defamation was repealed. The creation and regulation of media companies falls under the authority of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), which is free of governmental and political control. Application of the law has been revised so that media outlets, especially online sites, that emphasise sensationalism, not be recognised.
Media outlets are concentrated in the capital, Freetown. Most journalists are poorly paid and do not have the equipment to work adequately – a situation that politicians use to their advantage to influence coverage in exchange for financial, material or logistical support. Generally speaking, media companies survive thanks to advertising revenue, although the market is severely limited. The government, the main advertiser, is notoriously late in paying its advertising bills.
Reporters operate in a relatively safe environment. But they are not free from harassment, and arbitrary arrests and detentions by the police, who seize their equipment. The major threat to journalists’ safety are politicians who often use the police to try to control reporters or hinder their work.