Interview: Sierra Leonean Editor Paul Kamara

As the editor of one Sierra Leone’s leading independent newspapers, For Di People, Paul Kamara has often walked a fine line between freedom of expression and his country’s restrictive press laws. In November 2002, that line dissolved when Kamara—1999 recipient of World Press Review's International Editor of the Year Award—was sentenced to six months imprisonment under libel laws that had not been put into use for three decades. His crime was writing a series of scathing articles in which he accused a senior judge of corruption and embezzlement. As Sierra Leone emerges from a decade of civil war and struggles to establish a meaningful democracy, Kamara’s imprisonment struck a sour note. It set off a wave of protest by journalists in the country, who feared that the case could be the first blow in a new move to quash freedom of expression.

On March 11, 2003, Kamara left prison after completing his sentence. When he walked out of the prison gates, he was carried on the shoulders of journalist colleagues who had campaigned vigorously for his release. Since his release, Kamara has been busy receiving visitors, family members, and friends who come to his office and home daily to show solidarity. WPR’s Sierra Leone correspondent Foday B. Fofanah found his way through the throng recently to speak to Kamara about his experience in prison and its effect on his work.

How long did you spend in prison?
I was sentenced to six months, with a six-month extension if I failed to pay a fine of 4.5 million leones (US$2,250), which was later reduced to 4,500 leones. The money was paid and the second six-month sentence was removed. In actual fact, I spent only four months in prison, which, by the prison calendar, is equivalent to six months.

That means you completed your prison term; you weren’t released on parole or pardoned.
Yes, I served the entire prison term. During my incarceration, some well-wishers, including my wife, tried in vain to secure bail for me pending my appeal. That was denied by the introduction of legal technicalities each time the matter came up for hearing at the appeal court.

Why was that?
The truth is the complainant is the president of the appeal court. He used his position to manipulate the trial and my subsequent sentencing by a judge who happens to be his junior and who is also closely related to his lawyer.

So you are saying in effect that your trial was unfair and the judge was biased?
Taking all these connections into account, and coupled with the fact that all the objections my lawyer raised about the abuse of the judicial process were systematically overruled, there was enough indication that the trial was never fair. In other words, it was a travesty of the entire judicial process in Sierra Leone. It exposed the judiciary to ridicule. Clearly, it was a gross violation of my human rights.

So what are going to do now? Will you fight your conviction in the courts or forget the whole matter?
Even before I was jailed, we had taken up the matter with the Supreme Court. We wanted the court to make certain constitutional clarifications. First of all, we wanted it to determine whether a judge should hold an extra office that profits him directly or indirectly, publicly or privately, when the constitution is clearly against such a blatant conflict of interest. [Justice Tolla Thompson, who sued Kamara for libel, is the manager of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA); Kamara’s articles accused him of embezzling funds from that organization—WPR.]There were also other abuses. I was arraigned before a criminal court during a judicial vacation, which made it difficult for me to secure the services of a lawyer. Many people have described my trial as the fastest trial ever. The game plan was to try me and imprison me before the judicial calendar resumed. But even taking that into account, they never followed the dictates of the law that stipulates that such a trial requires the consent of the attorney-general and minister of justice. This legal requirement was brushed aside.

Also, we seek to clarify in the court whether the judge, in his elective position as president of the National Football Association, has the constitutional right to transform a statutory body such as the SLFA into a private company when the law makes it abundantly clear that the National Sports Council should supervise it. This is one of the many issues I hope to contest in the court.

How soon do you hope to do that?
As soon as I raise the funds to hire the services of a lawyer. They are planning to throw the matter out of court within three weeks if I can’t hire a lawyer to take up the matter. So we’re desperately looking for funds.

What were conditions in the prison like? Were you treated humanely or targeted for harassment and intimidation?
I was treated humanely. But conditions are bad at the Pademba Road prison. There are no existing facilities for the rehabilitation of prisoners. The food is inadequate and poorly prepared. There are no drugs for the treatment of common illnesses. Though the International Committee of the Red Cross has been providing relief supplies such as blankets and beds, the deliveries are not frequent or sufficient. The beds are infested with bugs and most of the prisoners are not properly clothed. So I can say that our prisons are not serving their purpose as centers of reform. There is general frustration and despair among prisoners. There is urgent need for reformation of the prison system. Even the prison officers are affected; their morale is very low because their salaries are inadequate and their lives are miserable.

Were you held in solitary confinement or treated like the other prisoners, sharing cell with other inmates?
I was treated like every other prisoner. I was in a jumper (prison uniform). I was first given an old, ragged jumper that was later replaced. I wore a uniform all the time. I was alone in my cell but I had a chance to meet with several other prisoners and detainees. I can tell you, people are really suffering in that prison. Some of them have been kept behind bars unnecessarily for the past three years. The good thing is that...the rate of death has been drastically reduced.

And how is your health?
I’m fine. I could say that my imprisonment was a spiritual retreat. While I was in prison, I was able to reflect on life: on my struggle as a journalist...and on my work as a human-rights activist.

When you were in prison, did you have access to information and visitors?
When you are in prison, it is difficult to have access to information of any sort. But in one way or the other, one tries to catch a glimpse of what is happening beyond the walls of prison. I was never allowed frequent visits. My wife visited me fortnightly.

Will your imprisonment in any way affect the way you practice journalism? Are you going to be less critical and keep a low profile?
By my nature, no. As I said earlier, my imprisonment has helped me to be more focused, and to work with greater resolve to point out and write about the ills that affect our society. And I want to make it abundantly clear that I bear no grudge against anyone.