The Sierra Leone authorities must drop charges against human rights defender, Thomas Moore Conteh, and ensure that the three journalists arrested alongside him while they were covering a students’ demonstration are not subjected to any further harassment.
Conteh, Executive Director of the Citizens Advocacy Network-Sierra Leone, was arrested on March 5, 2020, alongside three journalists and 46 students of the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology who were demonstrating against delayed payment of government bursary.
The activist, who had joined the student protest in the business district of Freetown in solidarity, was detained overnight at the Criminal Investigations Department headquarters in Freetown. The police accused him of conspiring with unknown persons to incite students to breach the peace. They consequently arraigned the activist on public order charges on March 6, 2020, but he was granted bail and released.
“I commend the solidarity shown by all Civil Society Organisations in Sierra Leone. Thanks for asking for the protection of human rights and restoration of our democratic tenets,” Conteh said in a press statement issued after his release, adding “I remain true and committed to upholding the ideals of human rights, rule of law and democratic good governance in Sierra Leone.”
Meanwhile, the police released the students and journalists hours after their arrest during the crackdown. This followed interventions by the Sierra Leone media and other civil society organisations. The journalists involved are Saidu Yusufu Bangura of Concord Times, Morlai Kamara of Newswatch and Chernor Jalloh of Radio Democracy 98.1.
The police authorities have not given any official reason for arresting the journalists who claim they were detained just for doing their work as reporters.
“I was arrested after I took out my notepad to take some jottings. The police refused to recognise me as a journalist even when I displayed my press card to them,” Saidu Yusufu Bangura was quoted by his newspaper, the Concord Times as narrating.
The MFWA welcomes the release of the journalists and students arrested during the crackdown, although we condemn their arrests in the first place. We also hail the release on bail of Conteh and urge the Sierra Leone authorities to drop all the charges against him. The indiscriminate arrests contravene Article 17 of Sierra Leone’s 1991 Constitution which prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention. The activist, the students and the journalists were exercising their rights under Article 25 which guarantees the Protection of freedom of expression and the press. Their harassment by the police therefore, defies the fundamental laws of Sierra Leone.