Arrest of a journalist in Sierra Leone – presidential tantrums exposed

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 November 2014

Today marks exactly a week since popular radio talk show host David Tam Baryoh was arrested by police in Freetown, after an order for his detention was signed by president Koroma. (Photo: Police chief – Munu).

Sources at State House say that the journalist may be released this week, to coincide with the planned visit of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Sierra Leone.

But, there is deep concern now that the continuing detention is casting unnecessary shadow on the country’s fight against the deadly Ebola virus that has, according to unofficial figures, killed more than 3,000 people in Sierra Leone.

The arrest and detention of the journalist, has also brought sharp political and tribal divisions in the country, as suspicion and distrust between the ruling APC party and people of the south and eastern districts of the country grows.

Senior Kono members of the country’s establishment, including some of those close to the president are deeply unhappy about the president’s arrest of the Kono journalist.

When Ebola reared its ugly head in Sierra Leone in March this year in the south-eastern half of the country – regarded as the political opposition’s heartlands, senior ministers of northern origin were openly lampooning the death toll that was unfolding in the south-eastern districts.

Yet, president Koroma chose to remain silent and kept his powerful presidential pen in his pocket, refusing to sign an order for the arrest of his northern ministers, whom many argued, were seriously creating tribal divisions and undermining the peace and stability of the country by their toxic Ebola rants  on radio and television.

Was David’s arrest a politically motivated knee-jerk reaction and a display of presidential tantrums?

Once a strong supporter of the president, David had fallen out of favour with State House, after standing up for his fellow Kono tribesman and close friend – vice president Sam Sumana, who has been unofficially and unceremoniously declared irrelevant and redundant by the president.

David’s loyalty to the vice president, has in the last two years, earned him an abundant supply of police harassment and intimidation, based on executive orders from above.

president koroma failedDavid Tam Baryoh was arrested last Tuesday, 4th November, after criticising the president’s handling of the Ebola crisis, as well as his intention to revoke the country’s Constitution, so as to guarantee his third term tenure in office in 2018.

Is president Koroma using excessive state of emergency powers to hide behind his real fear of press freedom and civil liberty, or is he simply abusing his executive powers in order to settle old political scores?

A senior lawyer in Freetown told the Sierra Leone Telegraph that the arrest of David Tam Baryor was constitutionally and legally unsafe, and must be challenged.

The lawyer advised that; “Pursuant to the Provisions of Section 29 of the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution, any citizen can petition the Supreme Court to review the detention of Dr. Tam-Baryoh under a claim of violations of one or more of his protected rights.

“The president’s action constitutes gross abuse of political power and he should be challenged in the Supreme Court in accordance with law. Failure to do so, diminishes the role and influence of lawyers in our country.”

In the wake of Tam Baryoh’s arrest, president Koroma told journalists; “we do not want people to preach tribalism, hatred and division in the country pretending to be criticizing government on the handling of Ebola.

“I do accept constructive criticism, but will not allow anyone to divide this country under my leadership.”

But political analysts say that the government’s initial response to the Ebola crisis, which was seen as a south-easterner or ‘mende-man’ problem, and in particular the toxic tribal utterances of his senior ministers of northern origin, had indeed sown the seeds of hated and tribal divisions in the country.

Responding to president Koroma’s statement, Michael Fayia Kallon – a south-easterner himself, said; “These are preposterous allegations that any government can make on a citizen in a democratic country, only to vilify an outspoken young man who stood for the truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Tam-Baryoh is a superb Sierra Leonean educator, and he has the right to criticize any unscrupulous behaviour, or, any ill-advised government policies that falsely accuses others because they are not from their tribe, or do not agree to be part of a corrupt political system….

“In such an immature political setting, this unnecessary and unwarranted arrest could only lead to more ethnic disunity, and could push our hard-won political, as well as ethnic unity to the dustbin. Is this how the APC government is paying the people of Kono district for voting for them?

“What an incredible and pathetic situation, in a war-torn country like Sierra Leone, where uncivilized, ethnic hatred is about to open old wounds that could lead to another carnage in the country.”

But the president’s politically appointed minister of justice and attorney general was quick to come out to justify Koroma’s arrest and detention of Dr. David Tam Baryoh.

In a press statement, attorney general – Frank Kargbo, unable and unwilling to proffer sound legal and political advice to his friend – the president, said this; “The public would recall that on Saturday, November 1st, 2014, Dr. David Tam Baryoh during his weekly radio “monologue” programme made disparaging and inflammatory statements that in no way would aid the collective efforts we are making as a nation in the fight against the Ebola virus disease.

“Rather, his statements to all intents and purposes have the likelihood to incite public hatred, disaffection and instability by inferring and making innuendos of the government using the ongoing constitutional review process to perpetuate itself in governance rather than fighting the Ebola virus disease.

“Furthermore, in the same monologue programme, Dr. Tam Baryoh also inferred that the deployment of the security forces, including the military, in isolated and quarantined areas was done discriminatorily. This has the potential to incite public unrest thereby leading to a breakdown of public order and good governance of the nation.

“His insinuation of recent events in Burkina Faso to be replicated in Sierra Leone, a country still reeling from a very devastating conflict and presently dealing with an Ebola epidemic of unparalleled magnitude is not only distasteful, but an attempt to provoke unrest.

“Therefore, the arrest and detention of Dr. David Tam Baryoh was authorised by his excellency as provided for in the public state of emergency 2014.

“Whilst the government remains committed to upholding the fundamental human rights of all citizens, and recognises the tremendous role that the fourth estate is playing and continues to play in our nascent democracy and in the fight against the Ebola virus disease, the government takes exception to any one preaching tribalism, hatred and promoting divisions in the nation.

“His excellency the president remains profoundly committed to the people of Sierra Leone and ensuring the safety and protection of all persons in the country, as well as safeguarding the liberty and freedom of its citizens under the law.

“The government reminds the public of the existence of current state of emergency and urges the avoidance of conduct and statements that will undermine and threaten the aims, ideals and cohesiveness of the nation.”

If unconfirmed report from sources at State House is correct, David Tam Baryoh will be released from the country’s notorious prison in Freetown this week.

But his arrest has once again brought into sharp focus the tribal and political volcano that is now simmering underneath the highly charged Ebola frenzy in Sierra Leone.

There are calls for president Koroma to grow up and show maturity and leadership, rather than pandering to the whims of senior ruling party cronies and tribal bigots, whose only motive is to feather their own political nests.

Rather than order the arrest and detention of the journalist for airing out his views, the president ought to have shown maturity by orderingd his spokesmen to go to the SLBC radio and TV, or demand airtime on the monologue programme so as to address and refute the issues raised by the journalist.

As president Obama reminded African leaders: “Africa does not need strong leaders. Africa needs strong and democratic institutions”. And the media in Sierra Leone is the foundation upon which strong and democratic institutions can be built.

1 Comment

  1. It is hilarious to assert that “the media in Sierra Leone is the foundation upon which strong democratic institutions can be built”.

    This may hold true for western societies generally, but not so in Sierra Leone where prior to the outbreak of the Ebola disease, the favourite pastime of journalists – particularly most of those in the print media – was to engage in vilification of their colleagues and public officials.

    It is the outbreak of the Ebola disease which has focussed the collective attention of the media on a single national issue – albeit from different perspectives depending on the politics of the individual journalist.

    The Fourth Estate is divided along the continuum; independent, semi-independent and establishment media practitioners.

    And the Government taking cognisance of the professional division, recently appointed Commissioners to the Independent Media Commission (IMC), the Media Regulatory Body, personalities who were not endorsed by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) as is the convention. State House simply ignored the advice of SLAJ on their nominees.

    At the national level, no state official can pretend and honestly say, hand on the Bible/Koran, that Sierra Leone is a united country.

    The nation is polarised along ethnic and regional lines, as the results of the recent national elections and the previous one show.

    Some commentators have opined that ‘Bola’ has united Sierra Leoneans. But I disagree. It will take more than Ebola to engender unity among Sierra Leoneans.

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