Sierra Leone Journalist Assistance Fund Announced to Mark World Press Freedom Day

Friday, May 1, 1998
(Toronto/New York) - In recognition of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 1998, two exiled Sierra Leonian journalists, Lansana Gberie and Mohamed Bangura, announce the creation of an unprecedented fund to help rebuild Sierra Leone's media in the wake of its prolonged civil war. Mssrs. Gberie and Bangura, who are currently living in Canada, established the fund with the assistance of the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York has joined the cause and will help with the distribution of the funds. The Hellman-Hammett fund of Human Rights Watch has contributed $20,000 US and the Emergency Fund of European PEN contributed a further $1,000 US. With the help of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, the CCPJ and the two journalists will arrange for distribution of the funds to over 40 displaced journalists. On 25 May 1996, a bloody military coup in Sierra Leone terminated the West African nation's first meaningful experiment in pluralistic democracy. The Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), which overthrew the constitutional government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, embarked upon a campaign of repression against any perceived opponent of the junta--particularly journalists -- a campaign unprecedented in its viciousness and method. In the first three months of the coup, many of the country's leading journalists and their families were hounded from their homes and forced into hiding, brutally beaten and thrown into deplorable prisons without charge. Their offices were ransacked, computers smashed, and many were forced to flee into exile upon their release. Of about 40 newspapers which operated in the country before the coup, less than 6 survived, and they were forced to be compliant or to operate in an atmosphere of intimidation made all too real by the frequent arrest and detention of reporters who simply asked "sensitive" questions. At least 40 journalists fled the country, most of them living in almost total deprivation in neighbouring West African countries as refugees. Journalists are now returning to Sierra Leone, but have little to return to - their publishing materials were confiscated or destroyed during the fighting. More than 35 journalists have been identified as ones in need of assistance. Sierra Leone remains extremely dangerous for journalists. Edward Smith, a reporter with the British Broadcasting Service, was killed in an ambush by junta forces on 13 April while travelling with West African peacekeeping (ECOMOG) soldiers, and several journalists have been detained, according to CPJ reports. In addition, 22 newspapers have been banned by the reinstated government of President Kabbah on the grounds that they were not formally registered, according to British freedom of expression group Article 19. The Sierra Leone Journalist Assistance Fund is still in need of financial contributions. To make a contribution to the Fund, please contact the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists at the coordinates listed below. Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization established in 1978 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and among the signatories of the Helsinki accords. In 1989, the trustees of the estates of two American writers, Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett, asked Human Rights Watch to set up and administer a program to help writers all around the world who have been targets of political persecution and who as a result are in financial need. Hellman and Hammett had themselves been politically persecuted during the anti-Communist purges in the United States in the early 1950's. Human Rights Watch is supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide. It accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly. The Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists is a non-profit, non-governmental organization established in 1981 to campaign against censorship and abuses suffered by journalists, writers and media organizations around the world, and in 1992 became a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). The work of the Committee is funded by membership fees, individual and corporate donations, and program grants. Begun in 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists responds to attacks on the press everywhere in the world. CPJ investigates more than 2,000 cases every year and takes action on behalf of journalists and their news organizations without regard to political ideology. To maintain its independence, CPJ accepts no government funding. For further information, contact the CCPJ, 489 College Street, Suite 403, Toronto, Ontario M6G 1A5 Canada, tel: +1 416 515 9622, fax: +1 416 515 7879, e-mail: [email protected]

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