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Sierra Leone’s Independent Press: The country's pacesetters

  • Cross section of the Sierra Leone press

By Aroun Rashid Deen in New York City

Elections at their highest level in Sierra Leone are just months away. In March 2018, voters will go to the poll to elect officials of government, from the local councils to the presidency.

The period brings with it an inevitable sense of unease and curiosity particularly for members of the independent press in the country. Some journalists now quietly ponder the challenges ahead of them and how to confront them without compromising professional ethics.

In recent times, such big political events in Sierra Leone have pitched independent journalists at the tip of the butcher’s knife in the mix of dubious campaign tactics that heap unfounded aspersions on the media.

Two weeks ago, Awoko, a leading independent newspaper reported that a group of rowdy party supporters brutally attacked a reporter for The Exclusive Newspaper, following a campaign rally of the leading opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party. The reporter, Musa Sesay, was stabbed several times in his neck and back.

The independent press in Sierra Leone, notwithstanding, has always come up responsibly in the face of extreme difficulties. If there was any period in recent times the Sierra Leone media has been more resolute in its duty it was 20 years ago when renegade soldiers of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces went to bed with the then Revolutionary United Front, RUF, rebel movement and overthrew the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in May 1997.

The SLPP-led government was the first to be voted into office in a democratic process since the election in 1967 of Siaka Stevens, only to be overthrown in a military coup led by Johnny Paul Koroma – a major in the Sierra Leone Army.

The thought of the putsch was troubling news for the public in particular after much investment into nurturing and installing a budding democracy in the country, after decades of one-party and military dictatorships. It was disturbing enough to imagine a return to military rule, and worse, one that involved members of the dastardly RUF, known for their inhumane trademark of amputating their victims.

Even before the coup plotters - the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council / Revolutionary United Front, announced themselves and their determination to flush out any resistance, the President, some government ministers and lawmakers of both the ruling SLPP government and the opposition, escaped, through various means to neighboring countries. Some of those who couldn’t find their way out fast enough hurriedly pledged their loyalty and support for the AFRC/RUF.

Leading journalists of the independent media, on the other hand, knew it was going to be difficult. They knew they had to act and not follow the cowardly steps of politicians. They knew they had to occupy the void left behind by fleeing government officials. The media became a pillar of sort between a worrying, disillusioned and confused public against a ruthless military/rebel junta.

Journalists immediately started mobilizing and contacting each other. In one such contacts, BBC correspondent, Umaru Fofana managed to place a telephone call to a colleague at the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ, reminding him of their responsibility: "Almost every politician I know has fled. But we have to stay. We have a responsibility to the public, to the world and to our conscience. The news has to be told." A newspaper editor, Foday Fofanah of Opinion, was out of the country on a short study in Cairo, Egypt, when the coup occurred. He abandoned the course on hearing the news of the coup and returned home. Fofanah traveled first by air from Cairo to the Ghanaian capital, Accra, and from there, through some irregular routes to reach Freetown days later.

Months of negotiations, both domestic and international, failed to get the junta to return power to the ousted government. This prompted executive members of SLAJ to hold an emergency meeting in Freetown. The meeting passed a resolution calling on the junta to immediately step down and return power to the constitutionally elected government. SLAJ also said it "does not recognize the junta and will deny it all press coverages". The journalists further issued a directive that no journalist should have any dealings with the AFRC/RUF. They threatened to excommunicate anyone of their number who violated that directive.

SLAJ officials including their president, Ibrahim Tayyib Bah, David Tam-Baryoh of Punch newspaper, BBC's Winston Ojukutu Macauley, and Opinion’s Foday Fofanah, went to see the regime's secretary (minister) of information, civilian Abdul Salaam, to hand over their resolution as well as to seek an audience with Johnny Paul Koroma. Salaam suggested that the resolution is edited in his office to "temper the tone of it." But the journalists refused. Salaam then refused to accept the resolution.

On their way to see Salaam, they learned that AFRC/RUF combatants had set on fire the private residence of the ousted president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. BBC stringer, Umaru Fofana, opted to visit the scene and get back to the others. Unfortunately, one of the AFRC men shot him on his right leg. He narrowly escaped death.  

SLAJ officials then convened another meeting to inform their general membership of the outcome of the meeting with the minister. Two pressmen who were sympathizing with the junta (names withheld) attempted to disrupt the meeting by persistently calling out ‘points-of-order' and raising ‘objections'. The meeting was disorderly leading to a scuffle between Tam-Baryoh and one of the dissenting journalists.  Hours later, a group of RUF rebels arrested and detained Tam-Baryoh at the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Freetown. The following morning, Ojukutu Macauley and Fofanah issued a statement about the arrest and threatened to go on the BBC to accuse Koroma of having a hand in Tam-Baryoh's arrest. Tam-Baryoh was let go but was also forced to leave the country. Prior to Tam-Baryoh's arrest, the AFRC/RUF had planned to grab some journalists. Concord Times’ senior editor, Idrissa Conteh, was among those targeted.

Conteh, known popularly by the pseudonym, Atomic Pen, had mocked the junta in an article titled: AFRC on Mosquito Legs. The article stated that the junta has no chance of gaining support both domestic and internationally, citing criticisms of the coup by the public and civil society groups nationwide, as well as from the international community. Conteh argued that the AFRC/RUF wobblily stood on mosquito legs that were too lean and flexible to carry them any further.

Conteh's evoking of the flexibleness of mosquito legs was also to poke fun on the junta, one of whose most-feared members was a RUF so-called lieutenant, Sam Bockari, who had adopted the nickname maskita, a lingua franca for mosquito, an insect which has tormented the Sierra Leone populace for ages.

A senior junta member, a colonel of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces was direct at one press briefing. The colonel brought out some publications of the Concord Times. He raised the papers, and inquired from the journalists; “who among you is Atomic Pen?”. The journalists looked at one another amidst deep murmurings before one of them responded: "He is not around." The colonel was furious. "This guy sees nothing good in us." He grumbled. "He has taken a dangerous path. If you know him, tell him about the consequences his writings would bring him.” Conteh immediately went underground but not before he penned: *ECOMOG Set to Flush out the AFRC. ECOMOG being the military arm of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Their troops have served as peacekeeping and intervention forces in some trouble spots in West Africa.

In late October, Foday Fofanah who by this time was acting editor of Concord Times got a phone call from the Paris-based international media group, Reporters Without Borders. The caller inquired about the safety of him and Conteh. According to Fofanah, the media group had received an anonymous phone call in which the caller advised that Conteh and Fofanah leave the country in their own interest. WPR had stumbled upon an AFRC/RUF hit list targeting some prominent journalists. Fofanah also went underground.

Assistant editor, Dorothy Awoonor-Gordon took over leadership at Concord Times in the absence of Conteh and Fofanah. Awoonor-Gordon was arrested days later at her home and detained for days at the CID for publishing an article containing the names of journalists on the hit list of journalists, allegedly marked for death.

For Di People, Standard Times, Democrat, Independent Observer and Vision were no less relentless in exposing the activities of the régime. The Independent Observer was among the topmost critics of the junta. The paper succeeded in penetrating the hierarchy of the rogue government to gain access to vital information from within its ranks. In a brave move in one article, the paper linked top members of the junta to some armed robberies in the capital, Freetown.

The paper’s chief editor, Jonathan Leigh, was arrested and detained at a military camp in Freetown in early October following a publication that alleged that a leading AFRC member, a Sierra Leone Armed Forces sergeant, was involved in a separate armed robbery. Leigh was locked up in an underground dungeon for days where he could have died. The intervention of a senior military officer friend saved him. Leigh was not the only one in detention at the time. Paul Kamara of For Di People, Jon Foray of the Democrat, and Point’s Augustin Garmoh and a Nigerian journalist, Francis Akpu, were among them.

The resoluteness the independent press in Sierra Leone exemplified during those challenging days accounted largely for the overthrowing of the AFRC/RUF nine months later. In the absence of government officials, the independent media became the voice of hope for Sierra Leoneans. Journalists were the lens through which the international community determined what was going on in Sierra Leone made informed decisions on the country’s future.

The independent press paved the way for the reinstating of the country’s budding democracy. Due to their courage in a time of extreme danger, three editors, Philip Neville of Standard Times, David Tam-Baryoh of Punch and For Di People’s Paul Kamara were the recipients of the 2000 World Press Review International Editors of the Year Award, in New York City, USA.

With elections at their highest level just months away, members of the independent media in Sierra Leone are again quietly preparing for the difficulties they will face as in the case of Musa Sesay days ago.  Without a doubt, the independent media will come out decisively successful.

The second part of this article which comes out in two weeks looks at courageous leadership at the Sierra Leone Service on the midst of threats and intimidation during the AFRC/RUF rule.

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