On 5 October 2004 Paul Kamara, a leading independent journalist from Sierra Leone, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for seditious libel. The charges stemmed from articles which were critical of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The Sierra Leone High Commission in London issued a press statement the same day: ‘The President is pleased that whatever the merits of the case, the individuals concerned were accorded their rights to due process under the law, irrespective of their status. The Constitution assures everyone the right to a fair trial.’ The President also reaffirmed his commitment to the promotion of the fundamental rights, including freedom of the press and freedom of expression, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, PEN, the international writers’ organisation, and other human-rights groups are concerned that Kamara’s prison sentence is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1562, which calls on the Sierra Leone Government to ‘decriminalise press offences, as other African countries have done’. In addition, questions have been raised about the impartiality of the judge chosen to preside over Kamara’s case, Bankole Rashid, who (it has been alleged) had already made scathing remarks about Kamara in public, and repeated them in court.
Sierra Leone is situated on the west coast of Africa and shares borders with Guinea and Liberia. The country was racked by a brutal civil conflict from 1991 to 2002, which left at least 50,000 dead. In February 1996 President Kabbah was democratically elected, but he was deposed in a military coup in May 1997. With the help of a UN peacekeeping force, the government gradually restored its authority, and in the election of May 2002 President Kabbah obtained 70 per cent of the votes and won a further five-year term. His party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), also gained a large majority in parliament.
While the country is slowly rebuilding itself, media freedom in Sierra Leone remains limited, and media-rights monitors have reported that the authorities use libel laws and the courts to target errant journalists who write about high-level corruption. In particular, journalists want the government to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act, which is considered the biggest threat to press freedom.
Kamara, forty-eight, is the founding editor and publisher of the daily For Di People, reportedly Sierra Leone’s oldest surviving independent newspaper. He also serves as Chairman of Sierra Leone’s National League for Human Rights. An outspoken critic of government corruption since the days of the late Siaka Stevens, he has been persecuted numerous times over the years because of his journalism and his advocacy of democracy. According to one account, Kamara has been imprisoned more times than any other journalist in the country. He also narrowly survived an assassination attempt in February 1996. His leg was shattered in the attack and he came to England for treatment, but returned to Freetown in May 1997, two weeks before President Kabbah’s government was overthrown. After the military coup, Kamara was forced to publish in hiding; his offices were bombed, and rebels occupied his home when he went underground.
Kamara was previously imprisoned for libel in November 2002, after writing a series of articles in which he accused a senior judge of corruption and embezzlement. While he was appearing in court on that occasion, the police reportedly confiscated his newspaper’s equipment, taking computers, printers, desks and telephones. He was released on 11 March 2003.
On 3 October this year, For Di People printed articles detailing a 1968 Commission of Inquiry into fraud allegations concerning the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board. At the time of the alleged fraud, the current President was Permanent Secretary to the Trade Ministry. Excerpts from the Commission’s report were also published in the paper. Kamara was arrested the same day, and sentenced within forty-eight hours. His newspaper has been closed down. Some commentators believe this is an attempt to keep For Di People out of production at least until the next presidential election.
Kamara has launched an appeal at the Freetown Appeal Court, stating that the ‘judgment is against the weight of evidence brought against him’. He is also protesting that he should have been tried before a jury rather than a judge, particularly in light of the prejudices voiced by Judge Bankole Rashid.
Kamara was given two prison terms of twenty-four months, to be served concurrently. The printer of For Di People, Brima Sesay, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, but the punishment was commuted to a fine of Le 10,000 (US $5). Two other members of staff at the printing press were acquitted. Kamara began serving his sentence immediately and is currently held at Pademba Road Prison in Freetown.
Mike Butscher, from the Sierra Leone PEN centre, claims that ‘Paul Kamara is a victim of our antiquated legal system and the laws. Even President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a lawyer by profession, has pledged to repeal the Public Order Act of 1965 under which Paul Kamara was convicted. Our laws pertaining to free expression need urgent review.’
Readers may send appeals calling for the dropping of all criminal charges and the release of Paul Kamara to:
His Excellency President Kabbah
Office of the President
15 Siaka Stevens Street
Fax: 00 232 22 225615