Journalists in Sierra Leone drag to court by government for so called seditious libel  

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 21 September 2017

Four journalists in Sierra Leone working for two popular newspapers – Salone Times and New Age publications respectively, will tomorrow appear in magistrate court in Freetown, to answer charges of fourteen counts of seditious and criminal libel, brought by the government’s National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM).

The journalists have been accused of publishing what NATCOM says are false stories in March this year, about the massive increase in phone call charges levied by mobile telephone companies.

Sierra Leone has one of the highest costs of mobile phone call charges in Africa, and when prices go up there is usually public outcry, which many in Sierra Leone believe to have been echoed by the journalists in their reports which landed them into trouble with the authorities.

When president Koroma took office in 2007, he promised to expunge the Seditious Libel Act from the country’s statute books, claiming that the Act is an affront to civil liberty and free speech. But after ten years in power and now just months away from leaving office, his government has conveniently used the Act to punish journalists.

Tomorrow’s court trial will see the appearance of the chief executive editor of the New Age newspaper – Ibrahim Samura and his consultant editor – both charged with four counts of sedition and criminal libel; and Donald Theo Harding and his editor Thomas Dixon – both of Salone Times newspaper, charged with ten counts of sedition and criminal libel.

So what did they publish to warrant such a draconian action from the government?

This is what SALONE TIMES published, and you can be the judge:

Corporate Gangsterism… AIRTEL, AFRICELL, NATCOM IN TOP UP CONSPIRACY

In barely two months, when Airtel illegally increased the tariff which invariable affected Sierra Leoneans, the company and africell together with the regulator have conspired to increase the tariff in the country.

This happened in what looks like a well stage managed conference to discuss whether to increase and not to increase the tariff in the country last Wednesday 22 March 2017 at the Bintumani Hotel in Freetown.

This comes in the avalanche of an already increased in the tariffs of electricity, water, and prices of passports and fuel oil, which invariably continues to affect the already suffering masses.

And to the disappointment of persons present during the deliberation, almost all the CSOs who spoke on the increment/no increment of tariff disappointedly supported the proposal.

As he clears the name of his institution, Momoh Konte, Chairman of NATCOM was quick to make understandable his commission’s position that “NATCOM is but merely a referee who will listen to both the consumers and service providers, then later make a decision.”

A representative of the Parliamentary Committee on Information, Hon. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo has said however that the dialogue conference is not only important because it seeks to address tariff, but because it addresses issues of ‘availability’ and ‘affordability’ of telecommunication facilities, how service providers should survive too.

One of the service providers who certainly wasn’t a part of the perceived stage managed business, Foday Sankoh of On Lime Sierra Leone, said: “his organization is not in support of any increment of tariff, rather wanted government to reduce taxes and improve on the installed fibre optic to the provinces.”

It could be recalled that the World Bank has said that Sierra Leone already has the highest tariff on mobile phone in the region, and at a point called on government to enhance reduction of tariff.

Professionally, any increment of tariff by service providers needs to be supported by reasons linking services provided, and not unreasonable excuses vis-à-vis increase in prices of electricity, fuel, and foreign exchange as was flimsily put forward by all of the service providers present at the Bintumani conference.

However, and even though customers still have respect for the current Chairman of NATCOM on grounds that he has been the first to have brought both the consumers and service providers together on issues of increment of tariff, their suspicions are that he (Momoh Konteh) may have been compromised by existing mobile companies into soft handedly making them sail through their ill-gotten plans.

Comments as observed by users of social media are that those so called civil society representatives have had no understanding with their respective organizations preceding the Bintumani and so have virtually not represented their interests at all. (End of story).

And this is also what  NEW AGE newspaper published, and you can be the judge:

Another Nightmare… TOP CARD INCREMENT APPROVED

“When an executive has the authority and his subordinate has the responsibility…the subordinate in effect, then, is only a glorified clerk,” this was how it was last week when representatives calling themselves civil society mouthpieces met at Bintumani to discuss TARIFF/TOP CARD increment with MOBILE COMPANIES.

The Thursday meeting as organized by NATCOM (the country’s telecommunications regulator), was afterwards correctly tagged ‘Black Day,’ because it somewhat supports what many say: “in Sierra Leone, poor men don’t count, and the rich and influential swim in wealth at will.”

It is two months down the line, Government has habitually increased tariffs of electricity, water, fuel, passport and as at last week, endorsed the increment of tariff (Top Up Cards), which in effect affects the poor, supplements the well-off.

Believed to be a stage-managed dialogue conference, that which brought mobile/internet service providers and specially selected civil society organizations together, to showily discuss ‘increment’ as was requested by service providers, NATCOM, by reason of a resolution ends up endorsing tariff increase.

Of course, CSOs representing institutions such as Accountability Now, Market Women Association, Youth Parliament, Ataya Base Union, few others including representatives from the provinces, unreasonably supported proposal brought forward by mobile/internet service providers for an increase of tariff, to the amazement of one internet service provider- ON LIME SIERRA LEONE- which position was contradictory of associate service providers.

“ON LIME is not in support of any increase of tariff, but wants government to provide a baseline subsidy on tax for service providers,” Foday Sankoh, owner ON LIME Sierra Leone said.

But as he unambiguously explains his institution’s position, Momoh Konte, Chairman NATCOM, understandably told the full to capacity Bintumani hall his commission’s position saying: “NATCOM is but an arbitrator and we are here to listen to all the parties (consumers and service providers) and then take a position.”

A representative of the Parliamentary Committee on Information, Hon. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said that the dialogue conference is important because it seeks to address tariff and issues of affordable and available telecommunication facilities.

It could be recalled that the World Bank has said that Sierra Leone has the highest tariff on mobile phone in the region and has once asked government to cause a reduction of tariff.

For this reason, World Bank supported the Liberalization of the gateway as was approved by Parliament and the landing of the fibre optic, all in the name of having a drastic reduction of tariff for affordability.

Findings are that tariff increment, the world over, is determined by the fact that providers offer better services to the consumers, rather than putting forward irrational excuses vis-à-vis increments in electricity, fuel and of course the foreign exchange rate as was weakly emphasized by service providers present at the Bintumani conference.

However, and for the sake of people’s enlightenment, we here publish the European Commission’s (EC) Recommendation on tariff increase mentioned under Article 15, in order to identify operators with a significant market power in the latest rounds of market analyses: “there is a relevant risk of adverse effects arising from price distortion and that the setting of cost orientation obligation is but only appropriate for the purposes of promoting efficiency, sustainable competition and conferring the greatest benefits on the end-users,” Which no doubt hinge on better services than so-called reasons put forward by the service providers.

And that because service providers don’t want to share infrastructure with colleagues to reduce cost, they lay blame on increase of electricity, fuel and foreign exchange to unavoidably increase tariff even when services provided are completely inadequate. (End of story).

The Sierra Leone Tariff asks – where is the seditious libel in those two stories published by the Salone Time and the New Age newspapers?

The government’s action to charge the four journalists with seditious libel is outrageous as it is grossly an abuse of power.

Let common sense prevail in court tomorrow – and the case thrown out by the magistrate.

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