FREETOWN — Reporters Without Borders is calling on the government of Sierra Leone to drop all charges of seditious libel against journalists in the country. Seven journalists have been arrested since October and police have also searched two newspapers.
Jonathan Leigh, the managing editor and publisher of the newspaper The Independent Observer in Freetown, the country's capital, said he and his chief editor spent several weeks in prison last October after being interrogated by police and charged with seditious libel for publishing an article written by another columnist that compared Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, to a rat.
The column also addressed apparent disputes between Koroma and his vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana.
"We thought it fit that we should publish it, maybe for the president to know that there are people out there who are concerned about the way the country is being run, when there is a misunderstanding between the president and vice president," said Leigh.
Leigh and his editor were eventually released on bail of about $115,000 in November.
He added that the paper also printed an apology but the matter is still before the courts.
The International Press Institute has called for the charges to be dropped, saying they are too severe.
Reporters Without Borders expressed a similar view and stated police should not interfere but should instead send complaints to Sierra Leone's Independent Media Commission (IMC).
The IMC, which is separate from the government, regulates media in the African country. The commission has a code that states journalists should be objective in their reporting and keep themselves free from government or opposition control.
Government spokesperson Abdulai Bayraytay explained that it is up to each individual to decide where to file a complaint against journalists. It is not mandatory to go to the IMC.
He added that the government is not against freedom of the press, but if someone makes a complaint to the police they have to act.
"It is up to the police to determine whether they have sufficient evidence to prosecute a matter or not, but it is never a government policy to go after the media in any way," said Bayraytay.
However, Reporters Without Borders maintains the arrests are intimidation tactics from those in power.
Augustine Garmoh, the acting chairman of the IMC, said the actions taken against journalists in Sierra Leone are disconcerting.
"I would imagine those are deliberate attempts by government officials to keep journalists at bay... The moment you know your matter is in court, you're going to be mindful of what you write," said Garmoh.
Sierra Leone was ranked 72nd out of 180 countries in the 2014 press freedom index which Reporters Without Borders published earlier this month, 10 places lower than its ranking in the 2013 index.
The Sierra Leone police were contacted for this story but said no one was available for comment.