The Trial of Paul Kamara

Sierra Leone: Press Freedom Suffers a Blow

Paul Kamara

Sierra Leone has never been an easy place for journalists to work; still, it has been almost three decades since a journalist was sentenced to jail time under the country’s 37-year-old criminal libel laws. That changed on Nov. 12, when Paul Kamara, editor of For Di People newspaper and recipient of World Press Review’s 2000 International Editor of the Year award and the London-based International Press Directory’s Freedom of the Press award in 1997, was sentenced to six months in prison and fined heavily for allegedly defaming a senior judge.

The charges against Kamara date back to April 5, 2002, when the president of the Appeal Court of Sierra Leone, Justice Tolla Thomson, sued him for libel. Kamara had authored a series of scathing articles questioning the manner in which the judge managed the Sierra Leone Football Association’s finances. In his pieces, Kamara accused the judge of embezzling funds from the SLFA and branded him a “constitutional fraudster” for serving as national president of the SLFA in contravention of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, which states: “A judge of the superior court…shall not, while he continues in office, hold any other office of profit or emolument, whether by [way] of allowances or otherwise, whether private or public, and either directly or indirectly.”

On Nov. 12, Kamara was found guilty on 18 counts of criminal libel under Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act of 1965. He was fined 4.5 million leones (US$2,250) for nine of those 18 counts and sentenced to an initial six months in prison, with a three-month extension if he failed to pay the fine. The trial judge, Justice Umu Hawa Tejan-Jalloh, even suggested that she would recommend that the president shut down Kamara’s newspaper, For Di People.

The case has ignited a media campaign both locally and internationally. In a press release, Joel Ruimy, the executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) demanded that the government of Sierra Leone rescind the court’s decision, saying, “There can be no question of imprisonment for writing in a newspaper.” The Writers in Prison Committee of the international writers’ organization PEN wrote: “The Sierra Leonean authorities [should] release Paul Kamara and drop all charges against him,” and Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), wrote in a letter to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah: “It is outrageous that authorities are now sentencing journalists simply because of what they write. Journalists in Sierra Leone have endured terrible violence in recent years, including the death of 15 of their colleagues.”

On the home front, condemnation of the trial has been swift and ferocious. Sierra Leone’s Independent Media Commission, a statutory body that regulates the press, attacked the trial judge for proposing to ban For Di People. Among other things, the commission reminded the judge that the power to suspend or cancel a media institution’s license is vested in the commission, not the judiciary.

The judge’s impartiality was also questioned by several papers. Writing in For Di People on Nov. 25, Harry Yansaneh and Moses Kargbo pointed out that the trial judge, Justice Hawa Jalloh, is the sister-in-law of the complainant’s leading lawyer, Nasiru Deen Tejan-Cole. Other papers have pointed to the fact that Hawa Jalloh is a junior colleague of the complainant, Justice Tolla Thomson, who is the current president of the Appeal Court of Sierra Leone.

Justice Hawa Jalloh “ought to have indicated her connections and extra judicial connections to the chief prosecutor,” argued Gibson Okeke, the lawyer representing Kamara. Okeke accused the judge of “arrogating to herself, the complainant and solicitors powers they do not possess, thereby creating anarchy in the judiciary.” He also lashed out at the prosecution lawyer for “dishonestly refusing to state in what capacity his client was defamed, neither was his occupation, profession or calling stated in the indictment.” Okeke also protested that the entire criminal trial was conducted during the court’s vacation period, thereby violating rules relating to criminal sessions and judicial holidays.

For Kamara’s colleagues in the Sierra Leoneon press, the sentence has chilling implications: Above all, there is concern that the application of the criminal libel law will instill fear and effectively silence the press. Just after the sentence was handed down, the Sierra Leone Journalism Association (SLAJ), the umbrella group of all local media organizations, hurriedly called an emergency meeting to devise strategies to secure Kamara’s immediate release from detention. What emerged from the meeting was a clarion call for solidarity and a vigorous campaign to free Kamara and decriminalize libel. “The criminalizing of libel would make it difficult for us to perform our job as journalists. Today it is Paul, tomorrow it could any one of us,” said Betty Foray of the independent Democrat.

Another issue the press in this country has hammered is Kamara’s poor representation in court. The fact that Kamara’s opponent in this case was the president of Sierra Leone’s appeal court meant that many lawyers shied away from the trial, leaving Kamara unrepresented for much of the proceedings. According to For Di People, “all the lawyers Paul approached to defend him declined the job “for fear of offending a very senior judge, [as] most of [them] had cases before his court.”

For Di People named one lawyer who promised to represent Kamara at the trial, yet failed to show up when the case came up for hearing. Kamara’s second lawyer was detained twice for contempt when he commented on the court’s procedural flaws and insisted on an adjournment to prepare his defense. Sensing that the judge would not give him a fair hearing, this lawyer raced to the Supreme Court to halt the trial while seeking clarification on fundamental constitutional issues. During his absence, the judge ruled on the case.

Amid the constitutional fiasco and a blitzkrieg media campaign, the government has remained indifferent. To date, its only action has been to issue a statement saying that this matter rests between two citizens and the law must take its course. “All citizens and those who reside in Sierra Leone have a right to redress in the competent courts of this country….Justice Tolla Thomson, a citizen of this country who is aggrieved for alleged defamatory remarks made against him has sought redress in the court. After due trial the court has pronounced its verdict,” the release stated. It went on to say that “if Paul is aggrieved by that verdict, he has the right to redress in the courts, even to the Supreme Court.”

But Kamara no doubt knows that he won’t win in Sierra Leone’s impartial courts. His comfort, therefore, must be that he has evidence to support his claims. He recently handed over for investigation a dossier of incriminating documents to Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission. The dossier allegedly contained documents and correspondence in which the former Permanent Secretary of the ministry of Youth, Education and Sports, Sana Marah, expressed serious doubts over the SLFA’s financial prudence and called for a full investigation into the SLFA’s administration and financial management. On Nov. 22, Peep claimed that evidence in the dossier proved that the SLFA could not give proper account for the US$45,000 that the International Football Federation (FIFA) had provided for the Sierra Leone-Liberia World Cup match.

For now, Kamara is languishing in jail. But his case has drawn attention to Sierra Leone’s draconian press laws, and the fact that colleagues in the press and around the world are fighting on his behalf suggests that the story isn’t over yet.