PEN American Center is closely watching the recent news in Sierra Leone that the government is prosecuting two journalists for allegedly comparing President Ernest Bai Koroma to a rat. Jonathan Leigh, managing editor of the opposition daily Independent Observer, and its editor, Bai-Bai Sesay, have been detained since their arrest, and were denied bail at the court hearing on October 23. The following was released by PEN Sierra Leone, one of 140+ PEN Centres worldwide.


For Immediate Release

FREETOWN (SIERRA LEONE)—The Managing Editor of The Independent Observer Newspaper, Jonathan Leigh, and the Editor, Bai Bai Sesay, were rejected bail on Wednesday October, 29 2013 when they made their second appearance before Magistrate Komba Kamanda at the Law Court in Freetown.

Senior State Counsel Gerald Soyei objected to bail on the grounds that the “rat” article for which the editors were charged to court threatens the personal security of the president.

The case between the editors and the state/president has seen the former charged with 26 counts of conspiracy and sedition. Ibrahim Koroma, head of Sierra Leone’s Criminal Investigations Department, said Leigh had breached the Public Order Act of 1965 by committing seditious libel. This is a form of criminal defamation to which PEN is opposed. PEN has been campaigning against laws that impose excessive fines and penalties against journalists and writers for expressing their views everywhere.

Lawful freedom of expression is protected by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is one of the two major treaties that form the “Bill of Rights” for human rights, of which Sierra Leone is a party.

The media is now up in arms and very angry, not just because Leigh and Sesay were arrested and sent to the maximum security Pademba Road Prison, but also because several of the leading newspapers have in the past week had their offices raided and staff invited to the Criminal Investigation Department for questioning. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has condemned the action taken by the government. However, SLAJ has cautioned its membership to stay calm and observe the situation as it unfolds. The opposition Sierra Leone People Party has also strongly condemned these actions.

Many now wonder what the objective of all this is and what the government, or President Koroma intends to do. Is invoking the Public Order Act a mere pretext to stifle criticism of the government and its officials? The act has been branded as outdated by press freedom and human rights activists.

PEN Sierra Leone is joining freedom of expression and human rights institutions to express grave concern over what appears to be a clamp down on the press and calls on the government to put a halt to it.