Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 December 2015
As the troubled people of constituency 025 in Kono cast their votes in today’s by-election, there are worrying reports from the district.
The house of Sierra Leone opposition politician Philip Tondonneh, has been torched in Kono. According to unofficial reports, this took place after a state vehicle was burned. It is understood that the United States embassy has advised its citizens to stay away from the district.
Ernest Bai Koroma, the man former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once described as ‘a democrat, a good Christian and one of the most liberal presidents in Africa’, is once again showing his true credentials.
In a country where journalists are not free to publish without risking police arrest, intimidation and violence, few ever dare to cross the line drawn by the ‘powers from above’ – State House.
Jonathan Leigh – the publisher and editor of the Independent Observer was arrested on Thursday by the Sierra Leone police, for publishing a story about the politically motivated violence which took place in Kono last weekend.
“Police in Sierra Leone have arrested Jonathan Leigh, editor of the daily Independent Observer Newspaper for his publication today on the political violence in the eastern Kono District, over next weekend’s parliamentary bye-election. The head of the police criminal investigations department just told me that he was “invited for clarification” but would not say whether or not he would be released today,” Umaru Fofanah reported.
Leigh is no stranger to the police in Sierra Leone. He is the most frequently arrested journalist in the country, perhaps after the highly acclaimed radio presenter Dr. David Tam Baryoh, who himself is facing a legal battle with the Independent Media Commission.
Dr. Baryoh’s Monologue radio talk show has been banned by the ruling APC for granting airtime to the sacked vice president Sam Sumana.
But most importantly, the popular talk show host was taken off air for questioning the government’s spending of $12 million in purchasing 50 public buses from China, at a time when doctors were dying of the Ebola virus because they lacked adequate protective wear the government said it could not afford.
Baryoh is suing the Independent Media Commission, but his chances of fair trial to get their decision overturned, against the wishes of the so called powers from above are highly unlikely.
In October 2013, Jonathan Leigh of the Independent Observer Newspaper was arrested after publishing an article comparing president Koroma to a rat.
He was detained along with his editor Bai Bai Sesay, according to the police for breach of the Public Order Act, which Koroma himself had promised to expunge from the country’s Statute Books.
Leigh’s crime was that in his article commenting on the political war between Koroma and his vice president Sam Sumana, he said that Koroma “is regarded as an elephant, but he behaves like a rat and should be treated like one.”
What was even more troubling about that case back then, was the statement by the head of the criminal investigations department. “He is bringing the name of President Koroma and the whole cabinet into disrepute.”
Condemnation of the president’s abuse of the so called powers from above was swift. This is what Reporters Without Borders said: “Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by the way the authorities seem bent on hounding Jonathan Leigh, the managing editor of the Independent Observer, an opposition daily, and Bai Bai Sesay, its editor, over an editorial critical of President Ernest Bai Koroma.
“The two journalists have been detained ever since their arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on 18 October, a day after they published the editorial, which was headlined: ‘Who is molesting who, the President or the VP?’ We call on the courts to free these two journalists immediately and unconditionally, as they have been held arbitrarily for seven days in appalling conditions.”
Five months later, both Leigh and his assistant editor were in hot water again with the ruling APC’s intolerance of civil liberty. In March 2014, Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay were arrested, but then discharged after pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy.
Prosecuting Counsel Ajibola Manley-Spaine, told the judge that the State had decided to drop 25 of the 26 charges of seditious libel, except count one which deals with conspiracy to publish a seditious article against the President of Sierra Leone.
But the growing arbitrary use of powers from above aimed at scoring political points, was getting all too troubling for the national association that represents the country’s journalists.
In a press statement published on Tuesday, 14 January 2014, the president of SLAJ – Kelvin Lewis asked: “When government ministers have no regard for State institutions, how can they expect the public to respect these institutions and by extension the offices they themselves hold?
“The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) is deeply concerned about the increasing use of the Police and the Courts by government ministers to harass journalists.
“In the alleged criminal libel case between Political Affairs Minister Kemoh Sesay and journalist Labor Fofanah, we are concerned that Fofanah was refused bail and had to spend a day in prison before the case was heard; and for the extremely high bail demand totalling one billion Leones.
“In the case of Transport and Aviation Minister Leonard Balogun Koroma and Journalist David Tam-Baryoh, we are concerned that a text message seeking clarification was deemed as seditious libel and the journalist detained by police on “orders from above” only to be released after a huge one hundred million Leones bail condition was met.
“On the issue of Information Minister Alpha Kanu and the Independent Observer Newspaper, Journalist Jonathan Leigh is being questioned for allegedly publishing a story regarding concerns raised by a group of Internet Service Providers.
“Further, that the Police chose to raid the offices of the Independent Observer newspaper on Saturday January 11, four days after the story was published on Tuesday (7/1/14).
“We are concerned that these are the usual tricks employed by the Police to ensure journalists are kept in detention over the long weekend much against their basic human rights.
“We are also concerned that Premier News Newspaper was today also searched and its Editor interrogated at the CID for seditious libel on the same issue regarding Minister Alpha Kanu.
“SLAJ is particularly troubled by the complete disregard by government ministers for State institutions, in this case the Independent Media Commission (IMC).
“SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis asked: “When government ministers have no regard for State institutions, how can they expect the public to respect these institutions and by extension the offices they themselves hold?”
“SLAJ also notes the unprofessional manner in which the Police are allowing themselves to be used by politicians to harass journalists unjustly along with the frivolous use of the seditious libel laws.
“The Police should know that such actions reduce their estimation in the eyes of right-thinking members of the general public.”
Sadly, little has changed in three years, since the Koroma government changed its strategy towards journalists who are determined to ensure that free speech and press freedom continue to provide checks and balances on government power and control. President Koroma has lost his thick skin and has acquired a serious and dangerous media allergy.
Continuing the fight for social justice in Sierra Leone, Jonathan Leigh has once again been arrested. He will spend this weekend behind bars at the notorious and overcrowded Pademba Road Prison, where he has been locked up since his arrest on Thursday. His crime? publishing a report about the politically motivated violence that erupted in Kono last weekend, which saw the army being deployed to keep the peace.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on the authorities in Sierra Leone to release Jonathan Leigh. This is what they say in their statement published yesterday:
“Managing editor of the Independent Observer Leigh was arrested Thursday on accusations of publishing false information, according to news reports and local journalists with whom CPJ spoke.
“Bai-Bai Sesay, editor of the daily Independent Observer, told CPJ Leigh is accused of publishing false information over a front-page article published Thursday under the headline: “Panic in Kono: 3 dead.” The article was about reports of political violence ahead of local by-elections taking place Saturday, Umaru Fofana, a correspondent for the BBC and Reuters, told CPJ.
“The detention of Jonathan Leigh and the threat of criminal prosecution is a troubling reminder that Sierra Leone continues to use colonial-era laws to undermine freedom of the press,” said Peter Nkanga, CPJ’s West Africa representative. “Authorities should immediately release Leigh and allow journalists to report on the lead up to elections unobstructed.”
“Sesay told CPJ four police officers from the Criminal Investigations Department arrested Leigh at the newspaper’s office in the capital, Freetown. The police said Leigh was invited to their offices for clarification about the story, Fofana posted on Facebook.
“Fofana told CPJ the article that led to Leigh’s arrest included two press releases that gave the positions of the ruling and opposition parties about political violence.
“Kelvin Lewis, the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, told CPJ, the association met with Francis Munu, the inspector general of police, today, who told them Leigh was denied bail and that the editor would spend the weekend in jail before being officially charged in court Monday for false publication under the 1965 Public Order Act. Under the act, anyone found guilty of publishing false news can be fined and handed a prison sentence of up to two years.
“Leigh has been arrested previously for his paper’s political coverage. In October 2013 CPJ reported how he was held on charges of sedition and libel over a story criticizing President Ernest Bai Koroma.”