FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone has charged two newspaper editors with 26 counts of seditious libel after they published an article comparing President Ernest Bai Koroma to a rat, a senior official said on Thursday, stirring concern over press freedom.
Jonathan Leigh, managing editor of the opposition daily Independent Observer, and its editor, Bai-Bai Sesay, have been detained since their arrest last week, and were denied bail at the court hearing on Wednesday.
Journalists in the West African country said they would boycott government press conferences in protest and the head of their association, Kelvin Lewis, told Reuters it was the worst attack on the media since the country’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Reporters said police had raided the offices of several media organizations since the publication of the article which alleged friction between Koroma and his vice-president and said the president was behaving like a rat.
The West African country has enjoyed extensive press freedom during Koroma’s presidency and it was this year promoted to ‘free’ from ‘partly free’ by press watchdog Freedom House.
But rights groups say recent events suggest a change in attitude.
Koroma has twice warned in recent weeks that “the honeymoon for reckless journalism” would soon be over.
Reporters Without Borders called for the immediate release of the two journalists, while Amnesty International urged the government to drop all charges.
“Criminal defamation charges against media workers highlight the incredibly worrying climate for freedom of expression in the West African country,” Amnesty’s Sierra Leone researcher, Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, said.
Seditious libel carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Ibrahim Koroma, head of Sierra Leone’s Criminal Investigations Department and not related to the president said the case has been adjourned until October 29.
Reporting by Tommy Trenchard; Editing by Daniel Flynn