Ongoing suppression of journalists' and protesters' rights; criminal libel law repealed

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

This update covers developments in regards to the right to free expression and peaceful assembly in Sierra Leone from March to September 2020. 

Expression

  • On 1st April 2020, journalist Fayia Amara Fayia was attacked and beaten by soldiers for photographing a new COVID-19 quarantine centre in Sierra Leone. According to the journalist, at least ten soldiers hit him with their guns, kicked him, and seized his mobile phone. After the attack, Fayia was denied medical attention and charged with assault and disorderly behaviour. According to Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act, he could face up to three months in prison and a fine. The Media Foundation for West Africa condemned the attack on Fayia and called on the authorities to investigate the incident.
  • In another incident, Dr. Sylvia Blyden, publisher of Awareness Times newspaper, was arrested on 1st May, 2020 at her home, because of a post on her Facebook page that indicated that former Defense Minister Alfred Paolo Conteh, who was in custody at the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters in Freetown, was being kept in dehumanising conditions. She also shared a report by the Awareness Times that made similar claims about Conteh’s detention. She was accused of 'cyber-related' offenses and illegally detained for 22 days. Also, police confiscated her electronic devices and reportedly interfered with her Facebook account. On 22 May, public authorities charged Blyden with sedition, defamation, and “perversion of justice”. She was released on 29th May, but then arrested a second time on 3th June, after she violated bail conditions that prohibited her from speaking publicly about her case. She was finally released on bail on 24th June. She spent a total of 50 days in detention.
  • Hussain Muckson Sesay, a child rights activist, was arrested on 3th May and later charged with “perversion of justice”. According to reports, Sesay had photographed the detention centre where Blyden was being held and shared the pictures on social media. Sesay was released on bail, alongside Blyden, by Magistrate Hannah Bonnie of the Freetown Magistrate Court for the sum of one billion Leones (approximately 100 000 USD) each.

The Media Foundation for West Africa condemned the persecution of the publisher and the activist for voicing their opinions online, stating that:

"The charges against the two stem directly from their critical social media activities as journalists and activists. This activity should not be punished in a democratic state".
Parliament repeals criminal libel law

In a positive development, in July 2020, Sierra Leone's parliament removed its criminal libel law. Politicians in the past had used the law to silence journalists. By repealing the law, the country takes an important step forward in ensuring that free expression is protected. 

“The repeal of this law removed the chilling effect", said Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, head of Society for Democratic Initiative - one of the NGOs campaigning for the law's reversal. 

Peaceful Assembly

  • On 5th March 2020, Thomas Moore Conteh, Executive Director of the Citizens Advocacy Network (CAN), and over 40 students from Limkokwing University were manhandled and detained by police in Freetown during a peaceful protest march. The demonstrators were calling on the government to honour the decision of the previous government to pay the fees of Limkokwing University students who have received state support. According to media reports, the students were released without charge, except Conteh. According to the police, the public demonstration had not been authorised and was disrupting traffic around the business district of the capital. According to Conteh’s supporters, he was charged “for simply coming out to advocate for students of this country” at the Pademba Road Magistrate Court. Civil society groups and activists criticised the police for abuse of power. On 10 March, Conteh was released on bail.
  • On 18th July 2020, in Makeni, young people gathered on the street to protest the government’s decision to move a thermal power plant from Makeni to Lungi, in the centre of the country. Residents of Makeni fear that the relocation will jeopardise their access to electricity. When demonstrators began throwing stones, police opened fire. Five people, including a 15-years-old teenager, were killed in the protest.

Fatou Senghore, Article 19 West Africa Director, declared in a statement that:

“People were out in the street to exercise their right to protest. But the security forces responded with deadly force. We strongly condemn these unnecessary killings and attack against the freedom of expression and right to protest. We call on the Government to immediately investigate and bring to justice those suspected to be involved in the deadly repression”.