Abuja, 31 May 2022 — Sierra Leonean authorities must stop harassing Africanist press news site and its publisher, Chernoh Alpha Bah, and should investigate the death threats against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Tuesday.
According to a copy of the complaint published by the Africanist press and Bah, who spoke by phone with CPJ.
The complaint accuses the Africanist press to make “a deliberate attempt…to sow disaffection in the military”, which the ONS said could “cause unrest in the country”. The agency asked the commission to warn the news agency against “publications inciting incitement”.
The Africanist press is a US-based news site that covers Sierra Leonean politics and “grassroots African perspectives” on current events, according to its website.
The ONS letter followed a May 3 Africanist press report, posted on Bah’s Facebook page, which has more than 14,000 followers, alleging that the salaries of 30 civil servants in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Finance could cover the monthly income of 1,747 Sierra Leonean soldiers, Bah told the CPJ.
“The Sierra Leonean authorities must stop harassing Africanist press and should investigate the death threats against its publisher, Chernoh Alpha Bah, instead of trying to censor it,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, from New York. “Allegations of treason and claims that journalism threatens national peace are dangerous tools too often used by authorities against the press and can have a chilling effect on press freedom.
The US-based Bah has also been the target of death threats and other threats sent via social media. On May 6, Bah received a death threat in a Facebook direct message from a user who accused him of trying to “distract the true citizens of Sierra Leone”, according to Bah and a screenshot of the message. reviewed by CPJ.
On May 23, a Facebook group called General Kalokoh Media Team posted that the Africanist press is expected to face cybercrime charges, accusing Bah of exposing “highly classified” data. The group, which at the end of May had more than 700 members, says its aim is to “promote the interest of the president”, an apparent reference to President Julius Maada Bio.
When CPJ called a number on the Facebook account of General Kalokoh’s media team, a person who said he could speak anonymously for the Facebook group said he contacted local and international authorities about the Africanist press posts that he says incite soldiers to oppose the government. “We will not enter into any kind of negotiations. We have to find him,” the person said, referring to Bah.
On May 24, Sorie Fofana, a member of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party and chairman of the board of the government network Sierra Leone Cable, wrote in an opinion piece on the news site he publishes that authorities should deal Africanist press denounced treason and said the news agency was run by “dissident elements”.
Contacted by phone by CPJ, Fofana said he made the allegations because he considered Africanist press reports as incitement to the military, which he called “unacceptable”.
Bah said his news site continued to publish reports of alleged corruption under the Bio administration, but added that growing threats against the Africanist press could lead to the news site being suspended and his own extradition from the United States to face prosecution in Sierra Leone.
Previously, on March 2, the private news site, AYV Newspaper released a report quoting senior government officials saying that the Bio administration planned to continue the Africanist press for defamation and publication of “unverified data” while reporting on allegations of corruption among government officials and First Lady Fatima Jabbe Bio.
Bah told CPJ that he believed, based on conversations with confidential sources, that the threat of prosecution was related to a January 25 attack. Africanist press report alleging the first lady spent 7.89 billion leones ($615,000) of public funds on personal purchases. Since May 24, the Africanist press had not received any communication regarding the trial, Bah said.
Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swaray, told CPJ by phone that he would respond to written concerns about threats of violence and prosecution. CPJ sent him questions via the messaging app, but did not receive a response.
CPJ’s May 24 calls and text messages to Abdulai Caulker, National Security Coordinator at the ONS, and Victor Massaquoi, Chairman of the Independent Media Commission, went unanswered.