FREETOWN — Women's rights groups in Sierra Leone are raising concerns about how the media is treating a 24-year-old university student who has accused the deputy education minister of rape. The minister in question, Mamoud Tarawalie, was fired earlier this month after the rape charges were filed against him. Groups are concerned that media coverage of this case will discourage other alleged victims from stepping forward in the future.
Ahmed Sahid Nasralla is the managing director for African Young Voices, a local radio station and newspaper in Freetown that has covered the rape case.
Nasralla has published photos of the alleged victim, an act some criticize but one he defends.
"In one of the photos, she was wounded on her lip and that one we showed. And we distorted her eyes so you would not recognize her, but we tried to show areas where she got injured just so the public would know," explained Nasralla.
The director insists he took all necessary precautions to protect her identity.
Other local media outlets printed and broadcast the alleged victim's name and published a clear photo of her. Some have accused her of lying.
An organization called LAWYERS, which stands for "Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equal Rights and Social Justice,” has cried foul.
The group says section 41 of the Sexual Offences Act of 2012 makes it an offense for anyone to publish or make public information about a rape victim.
Simitie Lavaly, the president of LAWYERS, says media actions in this case will reverse the gains for rape victims that have already been made.
"It will stop any other woman who has suffered this in silence and maybe not having the same publicity because it is not a minister or someone in public office. It will stop them from coming forward and we feel that is wrong," said Lavaly.
One reason the sexual offense act was enacted last year was to offer better protection for victims to encourage them to come forward.
Often, rape cases go unreported because victims are afraid there will be repercussions from the perpetrators or they will be publicly shamed. The issue is still very taboo and most times victims do not come forward for fear of being blamed for what happened to them. Sometimes, their own family members do not believe them.
The act also stiffened penalties as a deterrent. Prior to the law, the maximum penalty for rape was two years in prison, and perpetrators would often settle out of court. Now, convicted rapists can be sentence to prison for up to 15 years and out of court settlements are not allowed.
Lavaly adds that both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator have rights to safety and privacy.
"We want protection for victims and also for the accused person to have his constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty," said Lavaly.
LAWYERS has lodged a formal complaint to the Independent Media Commission of Sierra Leone, also known as IMC.
Augustine Garmoh, a commissioner with the IMC, says the complaint is being addressed seriously and editors of media outlets who identified the alleged victim are being called to meet with the commission.
"The press must not identify victims of sexual assault or publish any material likely to contribute to such identification unless there is adequate justification and by law they are free to do so," said Garmoh.
He says consent of the rape victim is irrelevant under the law and editors found in violation could face penalties including fines and being required to issue a formal apology to the victim.
As for the former deputy minister charged in this case, government officials say he was fired from his duties because the allegations are so serious that he cannot carry out his duties while an investigation is underway.