- Sierra Leonean police units are reported to have raided the offices of the independent daily 'Awoko' newspaper, assaulting three journalists and confiscating a camera. The 'Awoko' journalists had tried to cover a police operation against illegal street vendors.
Three journalists were manhandled by police during a raid by several dozen police officers on the offices of the independent daily 'Awoko', in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, on 21 January. The journalists were assaulted by officers of the Operational Support Division (OSD) of the Sierra Leone Police.
According to report from the Media Foundation of West Africa (MFWA), the OSD officers confiscated the journalists’ digital camera. 'Awoko' reporter Sylvester Suarray also lost his wristwatch in the scuffle, MFWA reports. Also sports editor Austin Thomas and journalist Junior John were assaulted in the melee.
The raid came after the three 'Awoko' journalists went to the scene of an accident, in which a police car had collided with another vehicle, during a police operation against illegal street vendors. An argument ensued between the police and the owner of the parked vehicle as to culpability.
As a crowd began to form, the two journalists came by and decided to take photographs, MFWA Director Kwame Karikari reports. The police, apparently concerned about being indicted by the evidence, took issue and proceeded to assault and harass Mr Suarray and Mr Thomas. They claimed that the journalists had no right to take pictures of the accident scene in the presence of the police, without permission.
The 'Awoko' journalists had gone to the scene of the accident - located less than 50 metres away from the newspaper's offices - following a tip-off. Police officers warned them off and followed the journalists back to their offices. Led by Assistant Police Chief Momodu Bangura, several dozen OSD officers then raided the 'Awoko' offices and destroyed equipment.
The following day, Freetown police officers returned to the newspaper's offices after it had published details of the incident and the raid in its morning edition. The officers then threatened to arrest members of Awoko's management.
Managing editor of 'Awoko', Kelvin Lewis, reported the assault and seizure of the journalist's camera to the Inspector General of Police, Brima Acha Kamara, who has promised to investigate the matter. "Nothing has, however, been heard since," Mr Karikari reports.
The incident has caused protests by local and international press freedom organisations. Regional MFWA today condemned what it called "arbitrary use of force by members of the Sierra Leone police." According to the group, the assault "amounts to an abuse of power, a violation of media freedom and an obvious attempt to undermine the course of justice."
Mr Karikari, MFWA's Executive Director, today sent an appeal to Sierra Leone's Inspector General of Police, calling on him to "ensure an independent investigation and prosecution" of the perpetrators of the assault on the journalists. "Any remedies attending to the assault, and the loss of the camera and wrist watch, must also be made," he added.
Also the French media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today condemned the police raid against the 'Awoko' offices. "We strongly condemn these brutal methods, which are unworthy of a country that claims to respect the rule of law after 10 years of war," RSF said in a statement today.
- The security forces should allow the press to work in complete freedom," the French group added. "The government should quickly call the police to order and take steps to ensure that press freedom in Sierra Leone is guaranteed."
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