From the December 1999 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 46, No. 12)


Reporting in a War Zone

David Tam-Baryoh, Punch, Freetown, Sierra Leone, October 1999

In Sierra Leone, a country of 4.5 million people, with a literacy rate of 15 percent, journalism is reduced to a mere act of survival. Since the start of the civil war in 1991, journalists have had to contend with arrests, detentions, lawsuits, and self-exile. So far, 11 journalists have been killed, one died in prison while another lost an eye—all courtesy of unprovoked brutalities of the Revolutionary United Front—a rebel military group fighting the government.

The government has passed several restrictive press bills in parliament. After the May 1997 military coup that overthrew the Ahmad Tejan Kabbah government, rebels and their allies within the Sierra Leone army who ruled for nine months saw journalists as the non-conformist enemy. In his first broadcast following the coup, military strongman Johnny Paul Koroma announced that the Kabbah government had passed "an inhuman press bill that would kill free expression in the country," and that his "government" would guarantee press freedom. Three weeks later, many print journalists who refused to support the military regime, were chased into exile-while others were arrested, tortured, and detained. It was hoped that after the reinstitution of the democratic government in March 1998, media plurality and the safety of journalists would be guaranteed. This was not to be. Barely six weeks after Kabbah returned to Freetown, Attorney General Solomon Berewa and Information Minister Julius Spencer introduced a new "Emergency Press Bill," which was passed and enforced immediately. It barred journalists from publishing anything concerning the prosecution of the ongoing war between the government and the RUF rebels, "without seeking permission for such publications from the peacekeeping force, ECOMOG." Many journalists fell prey to this law, and within one week, four journalists were charged for what the government described as "publications of disturbing information about the war."

As the journalists were battling over bills and laws restricting the media, an unnoticed struggle had begun between rebels and journalists. Atrocities committed by rebels against the populace in the countryside became centerpieces in almost every newspaper. Rebels regarded such reports as unfavorable to their image and cause. They claimed that the Sierra Leonean journalists, who themselves had had relatives and colleagues killed by rebels, were unsympathetic to the cause of the RUF. In June 1998, BBC stringer Eddie Smith was ambushed and shot dead by rebels. At the same time, RUF Field Commander Sam Bockarie put a price on the head of journalist Sylvester Rogers, for broadcasting over the BBC that rebels had supplied local gin to protesters and demanded the withdrawal of ECOMOG peace-keeping troops. While fighting to contend with rebel threats and brutalities, journalists were shocked, when in July 1998 Kabbah charged nine journalists with treason.

Since 1991, Sierra Leonean journalists have found solace neither in the government nor the rebels. In view of globalization and the concern of the West over press freedom and human-rights abuses, neither the government nor the rebels are bothered by the ongoing persecution against journalists and the media.

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