Journalism in Sierra Leone

Publishing Against the Odds

I can vividly remember the date the first issue of Standard Times hit the newsstand. It was June 16, 1994. Before this date, news had gone round that a group of young journalists had fulfilled the 1 million leones financial collateral, a precondition for registration prescribed by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta.

The eight-page newspaper was greeted with some curiosity by the reading public and a cross-section of local journalists, as everybody wanted to know the brains behind the new venture. It was the generally held view that only top politicians have the willpower and financial ability to establish a newspaper. Besides, newspaper registration was mostly done by cabinet members, and if you don’t have your man within the cabinet circle, don’t even think of obtaining a license to establish a newspaper.

Just out of college, I wanted to break the myth and show that the journalism profession should not be allowed to be manipulated by politicians, since any journalist who allowed his newspaper to be influenced by a politician would not have a free hand to operate. His independence and sense of objectivity would be stifled.

From our small office at 33 Bathurst Street, within a short time we were able to raise the standard of the paper. Our editorial policy reflected and continues to reflect our stance—we are independent and belong to no party, nor do we expect patronage (financial or otherwise) from any quarter. The paper’s primary objective was not only to educate and entertain the reading public but also to expose the corruption in public offices that had plagued Sierra Leonean society for far too long.

We were called all sorts of derogatory names; lawyers were often hired to intimidate us. Some well-placed people in society threatened the closure of the paper, while others threatened us with imprisonment. On June 7, 1995, the NPRC government came down heavily on us when we carried a front-page article titled “Rebels to Surrender to a Democratic Government.” That article caused our detention at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). We resolved that we would prefer spending the months in custody rather than retract the story. After almost two weeks in detention, the head of CID released us on the condition that we publish what would promote a good image of the junta.

But as if the frequent threats had hardened us further, two weeks later we ran another front-page story, “Permanent Secretary Embezzled Le150 Million.” We were again called to the police. We produced vouchers signed by the permanent secretary, backed by the letter he sent to the Ministry of Finance for approval on the pretext that the money was meant for the purchase of foods for the displaced people. The police mounted an immediate investigation, and it was discovered that the story was accurate.

Between 1994 and 1996, we were detained more than six times, but there was no case to prove against us. Prior to the 1996 general election, a senior NPRC member tried to offer us computers on the condition that we not highlight the regime’s human-rights violations, as that was giving them a bad international image. We politely turned down the offer and told the officer that we already had computers and that there was no further space in our tiny office to accommodate other gadgets. Honestly, by then we had not a single computer; all we were using were two old typing machines.

After the 1996 elections, our independent stance, coupled with hard work, paid off. Standard Times became one of the most reliable and well-informed newspapers in the country. In 1997, the democratically elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was overthrown by the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council). As expected, we became their primary target. To safeguard our lives, we went underground but ensured that the paper came out regularly.

In February 1998, the AFRC was removed from power by ECOMOG (West African Peacekeeping Force). Its supporters and most of the military officers went into the bush. On January 6, 1999, they invaded Freetown, and in the following days burned down our office at Bathurst Street, and killed Deputy Editor Paul Mansary, his three children, and his wife. Mustapha Sesay had his right eye gouged out, while I was beaten and wounded on my head by a rifle. Karim Sei’s house was burned down.

All this and more did not stop us. We secured an office at 22 Liverpool Street and purchased two computers. Initially, the paper commenced operation with a staff of six, but now the number has increased to 15. Assets: 1) two computers; 2) four tables; 3) KVA generator. Although we are encountering multiple problems, they have not made us change our stance. We answer to no partisan call or politician. Our responsibility is to the people of Sierra Leone.

Neville is managing editor of Standard Times.