February 14, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Government uses arrest on “seditious libel” charge to repress journalists

Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about a series of arrests of journalists on “seditious libel” charges by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. “All these arrests of journalists by the CID is very disturbing,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “The authorities are making arbitrary use of seditious libel charges to intimidate media personnel. “This is obvious from the way journalists are bounced from one hearing to another in judicial proceedings that drag on without ever reaching a conclusion. We call on the government to drop all the proceedings against journalists and to end this politically-motivated use of the judicial system to harass them.” Kahn-Sriber added: “It is not right for the CID to get involved in these cases and thereby short-circuit the Independent Media Commission (IMC). In cases of alleged defamation, the IMC, which could use reinforcing, should be left to do its job, so that it can fully play its role as media regulator and guarantor of media ethics.” A total of seven journalists have been arrested since October and two newspapers have been searched by the police. The latest journalist to be detained on a seditious libel charge is Theophilus Gbenda, the producer of a programme on Culture Radio, who was arrested on 11 February in connection with a broadcast in which a guest made comments about a land case that irritated Vice-President Sam Sumana. Gbenda was summoned by the IMC but before he had time to respond to the summons, the police arrested him. He appeared in court yesterday but the judge did not take any decision on the charges and no date has been set for a trial. The CID arrested Premier Media managing director Dr. Julious Spencer and editor Alusine Sesay on 15 January on a complaint by information minister Alpha Kanu accusing them of defaming the government. While they spent the day in police custody, the CID went to Premier Media’s office and confiscated a great deal of multimedia equipment. Jonathan Leigh, the managing editor of the Independent Observer newspaper, and Bai Bai Sesay, its editor, were summoned for questioning by the CID on seditious libel charges on 14 January, also as result of a complaint by the information minister. This was three days after the police raided the Independent Observer, seized computer equipment material, and arrested one of its journalists, N’Fa Allie Turay, releasing him after several hours of interrogation. Leigh and Sesay were already arrested on 18 October over an article about the president. Charged with 26 counts of seditious libel, they were finally freed on 4 November on bail of 500 million Leones (85,000 euros). The trial was to have started on 18 November but has been postponed eight times without any decision being taken on the substance of the case. The next hearing is set for 19 February. Dr. David Tam-Baryoh, a human rights activist and host of the radio programme “Monologue,” was arrested and held for several hours on 2 January in connection with the alleged defamation of transport and aviation minister Balogun Logus Koroma, who is normally regarded as friendly to the media. Sierra Leone is ranked 72nd out of 180 countries in the 2014 press freedom index, which Reporters Without Borders published on 12 February. This is 10 places lower than its ranking in the 2013 index.