“You dirty . . . ” and other ways journalists land in jail in Sierra Leone

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Street scene in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, calling the country’s president a rat could find you being interviewed by police and court officials as you face criminal libel charges.

By interview I mean detained and interrogated by police. By libel I mean criminal charges, as in jail time and fines as opposed to American civil libel laws that require the element of malice toward public officials.

As difficult as it is to read this, it’s tougher to write after sitting among journalists and government officials today as they recount their versions of this case.

After one day in this West African nation, it’s premature of me to pass judgment on more than a decade of antagonism between the press and the government, but one thing is surfacing – both sides need intervention.

If calling the president a rat is the worst of journalism here, it would be easy to side with the journalists as they hold their elected officials duly accountable. Sadly, the rat comment seems mild compared to other stories I’ve heard and some evidence I’ve seen.

Newspaper stories are often rife with opinion. Sources are questionable at best; anonymous here usually means there is actually no source, rather than a protected one. The papers are sadly politicized to a level even Americans would find offensive.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a story could be pure fabrication.

Imagine if calling the president a rat was a comparable offense in the U.S.: Fox News would make for an interesting chain gang with Sean Hannity and crew working the rock piles with sledgehammers.

The government does have a point. Not the one about jailing journalists, or as it was referred to, “interviewing them,” over a weekend, at a police station. (Note: If a journalist writes anything in a paper which someone believes challenges his good name, that offended citizen can file a report with the police, who will investigate, and depending on the power status of the complainant, the investigation can be resolved on a street corner or it could escalate into the weekend interview.)

The government’s good point is that there is a lot of unethical and irresponsible press happening here. A nation that has a long and involved ethics code, as well as an independent media council to resolve disputes, struggles with legitimate journalism that places emphasis on accurate, fair, balanced and reasonably objective reporting.

It doesn’t take long to see which media supports the president’s party and which is against it, which newspaper is owned by a casino and which one belongs to a diamond mining company.
So, angered by the seemingly endless barrage of bad stories that fill many of this nation’s 63 newspapers (population 6 million with an literacy rate just greater than 35 percent), the government reacts and does so at times pretty harshly.

Even government officials admitted to me they don’t want to jail journalists (they didn’t say jail, they always say interview) but, sometimes a message must be sent.

Rat? Really?

Here’s where the journalists are right. If rat is a criminal offense, that does send a message, a real red flag that shows nothing will be tolerated. As one young journalist confided, the government doesn’t like bad news and chokes off the journalists who try to report it. That heavy-handed behavior isn’t acceptable from any government that claims it’s a democracy.

So, the dilemma here is obvious, that both sides need to exercise a lot better judgment. Government officials need to jerk the libel law provisions off the books, and there is some indication they are doing that with a bill that was passed but not implemented . . . yet.

Journalists need better training and more assistance with ethics. Calling the president a rat shouldn’t be a problem, but taking a bribe to call him that isn’t aiding their cause.

Day One is over. Tomorrow is a fresh start, new faces, new issues to mull and another chance to help create change between the two.

I’d be a rat if I came all this way and didn’t give it my best.

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