Journalism in Sierra Leone

Hunted by Bandits, Hated by Government

Sierra Leone today is one of the most dangerous places to work as a journalist. This has been the case since Foday Sankoh’s cynical Revolutionary United Front (RUF) first attacked Bormalu, a village in eastern Sierra Leone, in March 1991, and killed three border guards to start the dirty war. An aimless war that has claimed 250,000 lives has not only brought a once peaceful and promising nation to its knees but has spelled damnation for the media. In all of Africa’s bloody crises, no warlord has killed so many journalists as Foday Sankoh’s men. Journalists have had to defend their lives from rebel as well as from government forces.

In August 1997, journalist Saoman Conteh, running to Guinea for his life, was arrested and detained with journalist Betty Foray by Guinean soldiers who suspected them of being RUF sympathizers. On May 8 this year, RUF guards at Foday Sankoh’s residence west of Freetown opened fire on some 20,000 demonstrators. Nineteen people were killed, including Saoman Conteh.

In April 1998, BBC reporter Sylvester Rogers reported that the RUF and their allies in the army had supplied local gin to pro-junta demonstrators in the town of Makeni who were demanding the withdrawal of the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG). The RUF declared the journalist wanted, dead or alive, with a price on his head.

Rogers went underground and a week later was heard reporting on the BBC from the Guinea/Sierra Leone border. In that report, he explained how the government forces were losing the war due to lack of discipline and logistics. The government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah ordered Rogers arrested and prosecuted for what official sources called “creating tension and discord among loyal troops.”

During the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) regime of Major Johnny Paul Koroma, BBC stringer Victor Sylva reported that an ECOMOG shell had landed at a civilian residence in Freetown, killing three children. ECOMOG denied the report, and two days later AFRC strongman Abu “Zogalo” ordered the arrest and detention of the journalist for failing to address him by his full titles during a BBC broadcast. After his release, Sylva fled to ECOMOG for safety, and an ECOMOG commander threatened to send him back to the AFRC-controlled part of Freetown as, according to the commander, Sylva’s reports on ECOMOG operations had been biased.

To cap it all, Chief Sam Hinga Norman, deputy minister of defense and leader of the local militia, the kamajors, told supporters of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party in April 1998 that going by the negative reports about the war in the local press, “all Sierra Leonean journalists were rebels.” The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) demanded an apology. According to SLAJ President Frank Kposowa, the statement made Sierra Leonean journalists easy targets for political thugs.

To think that linking Sierra Leonean journalists to the dreaded RUF would endear them to Sankoh’s bandits was a mistake. Three days after Norman’s threats, BBC stringer and New Storm newspaper editor Edward Smith was in the company of government troops traveling from Makeni in the north to Kono in the east. They fell into a rebel ambush. Among the four people captured and beheaded was Smith.

The social impact of the war in Sierra Leone, especially on defenseless journalists and their immediate families, cannot be overemphasized. An average of at least two children  have been left behind by each of the 12 Sierra Leonean journalists killed before the July 1999 Lomé peace agreement. A number of journalists were abducted by the RUF or Sierra Leone soldiers and held captive. They have had horrendous stories to tell.

Abducted by renegade soldiers of the AFRC, journalist Christopher Coker said that during his six months of captivity, his captors one day threatened to kill him if he did not clap and smile as they raped three schoolgirls. He said 36 people, including children, were once lined up and amputated while another group of rebel soldiers placed dry grass on 57 people and set them ablaze. After his release with the help of a rebel commando’s girlfriend, government forces were slow to accept him as a genuinely released captive. They feared that he might be a spy.

The government of Sierra Leone has spared no effort in bringing up court charges against journalists for “alarming and disquieting reports.” Between March 1998 and September 1999, nine journalists and newspaper proprietors were brought to court for offenses ranging from failing to cross-check war-related stories with ECOMOG to “disquieting reports.”

Parliament has participated in the harassment of journalists. In 1997, parliament charged and convicted Torchlight newspaper editor Sheka Tarawally for publishing a report that the Kabbah government had given 4 million leones (US$2,700) to each of the 80 legislators to buy cars while teachers and nurses were on a sit-down strike. The journalist spent four weeks in prison.

Between April 1998 and April 1999, the government tried six journalists for treason, the penalty for which is death. Although they were found guilty, their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. They were later freed in accordance with the Lomé peace accord. However, former New Storm newspaper editor Marouf Sesay was executed with 23 other soldiers after a military tribunal found them guilty of treason and misprision. Sesay told fellow journalists that he had been dismissed from the army in 1994 and saw no reason why he should even have been tried by a military tribunal instead of a civil court.

The dilemma of a Sierra Leonean journalist is simple: Report for the rebels, and you are a collaborator, and the penalty is treason. Report for the government, and your punishment is summary execution if you are caught by Sankoh’s RUF bandits.

Tam-Baryoh is publisher and editor of the newspaper Punch. Another version of this article appears in IPI Global Journalist 3rd quarter, 2000.