A Unique Threat to Press Freedom in Sierra Leone: Your Intervention Urgently Required

By Alie Mozart Sesay, Acting Editor

When in 1996 this newspaper, The Torchlight, was subjected to harassment and intimidation through an arbitrary action by the Parliament of Sierra Leone to imprison the then Editor, your organization was not only one of the vociferous voices that spoke out against such a wanton threat to press freedom, but you actually wrote to then President Ahmad Tejan Kabba denouncing the action. For ease of reference, we refer to your ‘1996 threat to press freedom’ report in which you clearly highlighted the case in question: https://www.cpj.org/attacks96/countries/africa/sierraleonelinks.html

Today, just over twenty years later, we have found it appropriate to again seek your intervention in ensuring that the tenets of press freedom are upheld, as our newspaper’s continued stance for the truth faces threats from a most unexpected quarter – from the current President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Mr. Kelvin Lewis, who by virtue of his position should be at the forefront of advocating for press freedom.

The SLAJ President has taken our newspaper to the media-regulatory body, the Independent Media Commission (IMC), and has recommended “appropriate sanctions” against us (which could include suspension of publication or/and a draconian monetary fine) for merely asking him to clarify a particular incidence.

The issue has to do with our newspaper publishing photographs of him and an opposition political figure at the latter’s residence at night, and asking both of them to explain to the public what it was all about. The article titled “Midnight Visit To SLPP’s Paopa Leader By Kelvin Lewis? SLAJ Prezo In Bed With Maada Bio?” had the following contents: “We have these pictures of a kind of midnight visit by the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Kelvin Lewis, to the paopa leader of the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). We are humbly asking for an explanation from either party as to what this was all for, or all about. They are both public figures. If they merely met for a drink, let the public know. If it was for something else, let the public know still. We are simply asking, in the public interest, for an explanation from either Kelvin Lewis or Maada Bio. Gentlemen of course they are. And gentlemen of course they should prove by telling us ‘what the hell is going on’ – to quote Donald Trump.”

Maada Bio and Kelvin Lewis at Juba

For this – just for this – the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists has resorted to seeking punitive action against our newspaper. Normally, the association should be at the frontline of defending journalists for asking questions, but Mr. Kelvin Lewis has turned the tables upside down; and we cannot run to the press association for solace anymore, which is why we have decided to call on you to prevail on Mr. Lewis and the Independent Media Commission to disregard such a spurious and unnecessary case. Will Journalism exist as a profession if questions are not asked? Mr. Lewis is apparently contending that we should have contacted him first before asking the questions in our newspaper. But that is a wild imagination, as we had the pictures already and he could have just done himself good to explain.

It would interest you to note that Mr. Lewis himself owns a newspaper but did not publish the said photos in any edition prior to or after our publication. Instead of explaining to the public, he is accusing our newspaper of “bad journalism”. Who is the bad journalist here? After all, under normal circumstances, we would have expected that the politician mentioned in the questions would be the one to complain, but in this case it is the journalist (a whole President of the journalists association for that matter) that has displayed a thin skin and press-freedom-suppression tendencies.

You would of course agree with me that our questions were aimed at getting the side of either Mr. Kelvin Lewis or Mr. Maada Bio or both, and do not warrant the action the former has taken against our newspaper.

In his terse complaint letter to the IMC, Mr. Lewis stated thus: “I wish to state here that ‘NO’ attempt whatsoever was made to contact me about the story and the insinuation of me visiting the opposition aspirant ‘at midnight’ is very disturbing for the integrity of SLAJ given we are approaching elections.” You would see from the contents of our publication that it was not a ‘story’ per se, but an enquiry seeking an explanation, which Mr. Lewis has refused to do but instead is talking about the “integrity” of SLAJ “at midnight”. If he had considered this, would he have met the “opposition aspirant” at his house in the dark in whatever circumstances? As the President of SLAJ, he ought to have known better!

We have deemed it most appropriate to alert you on this issue knowing full well the influence that Mr. Lewis has on the Independent Media Commission (with all due respect to that body), which I think should have in fact disregarded his spurious complaint and not immediately summon  us to a ‘hearing’ slated for Tuesday 7th February 2017.  The fact that Mr. Lewis used the SLAJ letterhead and signed off as ‘President’ in his complaint letter means he is using the association in his intimidation tactics. You can read between the lines his commanding tone in the complaint letter: “I therefore ask that through you the complaints committee summons the Torchlight editor to check the truthfulness of his story and even the motive behind his story and I expect appropriate sanctions if found wanting.”

I am copying this letter to other press-freedom organizations for solidarity purposes. Also attached is the article in question with the accompanying photographs, together with Mr. Lewis’ letter of complaint.

I would like to end with two quotes. The first  from an article titled ‘Criticism Of BBC Journalist Laura Kuenssberg After Her Question To Trump Is Inaccurate And Dangerous’ by Sirena Bergman following a blunt question posed by the journalist  to US President Donald Trump : “For a news reporter, being called ‘rude,’ ‘offensive’ and ‘crass’ can be a compliment. It is the job of a political journalist to ask the tough questions and hold people in positions of power accountable, not to make polite chit-chat,” as published in Forbes online on 30th January 2017.

The second: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know” —Judge Murray Gurfein, Pentagon Papers case, June 17, 1971.

All that this newspaper did in publishing those pictures and asking the questions was in the public interest.

Mr. Kelvin Lewis can be reached on +232 76 602825 or via email slaj.salone@gmail.com, while the Independent Media Commission could be reached on +232 76 623 321 / +232 76 724 854 /+232 76 205 860 or via email info@imc-sl.org

Thank you very much for your usual cooperation

Long live press freedom

Long live democracy

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