Sierra Leone editor arrested for comparing president to rat

FREETOWN Mon Oct 21, 2013 1:57pm EDT

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FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone police have arrested a newspaper editor and another journalist for publishing an article comparing President Ernest Bai Koroma to a rat, officials said on Monday, stirring concern over press freedom in the West African country.

Jonathan Leigh, who edits the Independent Observer newspaper, was detained with another member of staff on Thursday after he wrote the editorial alleging friction between Koroma and his vice-president Sam Sumana.

The article said Koroma, a former insurance executive elected in 2007, was behaving like a rat.

Ibrahim Koroma, head of Sierra Leone's Criminal Investigations Department, said Leigh had breached the Public Order Act of 1965 by committing seditious libel. Leigh has not yet been officially charged.

"He is bringing the name of President Koroma and the whole cabinet into disrepute," said Koroma of the investigation department, who is not related to the president.

A spokesman for president Koroma said the leader had filed a complaint "like any aggrieved citizen".

During Koroma's tenure, Sierra Leone has been tolerant of negative press coverage and placed few restrictions on media.

The country, still recovering from a brutal 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, was this year upgraded to 'free' from 'partly free' by global press watchdog Freedom House.

However, rights groups say recent events suggest a change in attitude.

Koroma's Special Executive Assistant Sylvia Blyden stirred criticism from press freedom bodies this year when she warned media to "prepare for a massive and long overdue sanitization".

Blyden, publisher of a pro-government newspaper, said the only option was for the government to invoke the Public Order Act. The act has been branded outdated by press freedom and human rights activists.

"The government prided itself saying it has a near-perfect human rights record" said Kelvin Lewis, president of the Sierra Leone association of journalists. "But that seems to be no longer the case."

(Reporting by Tommy Trenchard; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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