7th March 2018 elections: CSOs urge political parties to sign Civic Space Manifesto

Civil society and UN call for greater human rights protections ahead of elections

As Sierra Leone prepares for its general and presidential elections on 7th March 2018, and as current President Ernest Bai Koroma's two constitutional terms come to an end, several alarming developments have taken place. These include the secretive passing of the NGO Policy Regulations in November 2017 that impacts civil society organisations (CSOs), instances of political violence and the government's rejection of more than 100 of the 134 recommendations by the Constitutional Review Commission, which were generally seen as an opportunity to strengthen human rights protections.

On 11th December 2017 - International Human Rights Day - the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone organised an event during which the head of the UN country team, Sunil Saigal, called on the government of Sierra Leone to strengthen its commitment to protecting freedom of expression and assembly in the country. In particular, Saigal urged the government to repeal or amend laws restricting these rights in the lead-up to the March general elections during which the president, members of parliament and local council representatives will be chosen. 

In addition to the uncertainty and instability around the elections, the country is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016 and the more recent mudslides in August 2017 that killed over 1,000 people. 

Association

On 13th December 2017, a coalition of over 40 civil society organisations, including Amnesty International’s Sierra Leone office, called on all candidates and political parties to sign a pledge, known as the Sierra Leone Civic Space Manifesto, thereby committing themselves to safeguard civic space, namely the freedoms of expression, assembly and association as well as protect human rights defenders. The Manifesto outlines human rights commitments that the country’s politicians should adhere to, along with specific policy recommendations in each area, including the decriminalisation of press offences, protection of privacy, protection of the right to gather publicly and privately, as well as training of security forces to manage assemblies without the use of excessive force and amending laws which impede the formation of associations. Solomon Sogbandi, Director of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone said that:

"It is critical that those who are contesting to lead our country ensure that civic space is protected. Now the official campaign period is beginning, we are calling on all presidential candidates and parties to sign the Civic Space Manifesto and commit to enabling people and civil society groups in Sierra Leone to participate fully and freely in civic life, during and after the election period".

The two main political parties, Sierra Leone People’s Party and the All Peoples’ Congress, however, did not sign the Civic Space Manifesto. 

In November 2017, the government adopted the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Policy Regulations, which applies to NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs). According to an analysis by the International Center for Non-for-Profit Law (ICNL), NGOs and CBOs will have to align their mission statements and activities to the government's development policies, and will be required to sign service-level agreements with the relevant line ministries before commencing their operations. Additionally, NGOs and CBOs will have to renew their registration every year, and need approval at the project level from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and other relevant ministries. Other worrisome provisions include mandatory membership in an umbrella organisation and the introduction of a new sanction of criminal prosecution. Most civil society organisations only learnt about the adoption of the NGO Policy Regulations in February 2018. 

Expression

On 11th October 2017, unidentified opposition supporters stabbed Exclusive Newspaper journalist Musa Sesay several times at an event organised by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) in Freetown to celebrate former military leader Julius Maada Bio's intention to compete for the party's position of presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. The journalist recovered from his wounds, and the attack was condemned by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the Media Foundation for West Africa

The SLAJ has expressed concern over the recent government's decision to disregard the SLAJ recommendation to include a chapter entitled - Information, Communication and the Media - in the revised constitution of Sierra Leone. Such a chapter would have included issues of media freedom from political interference and the establishment of an Independent Media Commission (IMC). 

SLAJ continues to campaign for repealing the criminal libel law which negatively impacts press freedom in the country. This restrictive law has deterred media investigations into and reporting on sensitive and controversial issues, sometimes involving government officials implicated in cases of high-level corruption and illegal activity.

Peaceful Assembly

On 26th January 2018, violent clashes broke out during a rally of the ruling All People's Congress along Campbell Street in Freetown to celebrate the nomination of Dr. Samura Kamara as the party's presidential candidate. One person was killed and several injured, and reports indicate that police arrested 56 people. Following the incident, the UN and several embassies expressed serious concern over the political violence that has ensued as various parties and groups rally ahead of the elections. 

In the run-up to the elections, the national police created a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that restricts vehicular traffic and movement for unaccredited vehicles from 7:00 to 17:00 on 7th March. The MoU was allegedly created to secure public order. The restriction, however, could hinder people's ability to gather and meet or form any kind of assembly on that day.