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Two journalists discharged in return for guilty plea on one count

Jonathan Leigh (above) and Bai Bai Sesay were pressured into pleading guilty to the conspiracy charge, in return for which the judge did not pass sentence and just issued a caution

The Freetown high court has cautioned and discharged Independent Observer managing editor Jonathan Leigh and editor Bai Bai Sesay after pressuring them into pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to defame the president.

“Sierra Leone’s justice system took more than ten hearings to drop this case (on March 10),” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “The judge’s decision to discharge the journalists ends a six-month-long ordeal but their being forced to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge is no mark of honour for the country’s institutions.

“The government’s policy of harassing the media is a threat to fundamental freedoms. The authorities use criminal defamation and sedition charges to intimidate journalists and then allow the proceedings to drag on in order to keep up the pressure.”

The proceedings against Leigh and Sesay were finally abandoned on March 10 after more than 10 court appearances since October, in which they faced charges on 26 counts of criminal libel, sedition and conspiracy in connection with an editorial critical of President Ernest Bai Koroma.

All but one of the 26 charges, conspiracy to commit libel against President Koroma, were dropped prior to the final hearing. But Leigh and Sesay were pressured into pleading guilty to the conspiracy charge, in return for which the judge did not pass sentence and just issued a caution.

According to Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the judge said in a final warning to journalists, that "truth is not a defence in seditious libel and that they must be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the publication in question is in the public interest.” They judge did not say how “public interest” should be defined.

Leigh and Sesay were arrested on October 18, a day after publishing the offending editorial – headlined, “Who is molesting who, the President or the VP?” – and were not released until November 4 after paying bail of 500 million leones (85,000 euros) each.

Sierra Leone is ranked 72nd out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, 10 places lower than in the 2013 index.

Date posted: March 13, 2014 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 0