Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the mutual hostility between Sylvia Blyden, a government ally and publisher of the privately-owned Awareness Times daily, and Philip Neville, the executive editor of the privately-owned Standard Times daily, which led to Neville’s arrest yesterday in Freetown on a charge of libelling Blyden.
“This regrettable case shows that Sierra Leone lacks effective mechanisms for regulating the media,” the press freedom organisation said. “Throwing Neville in prison serves only to punish him in a disproportionate manner and portray the judicial system as one that takes orders from government associates.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We urge Blyden to withdraw her libel suit so that there can be a serious debate about reform of the defamation law, which President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah promised in 2005.”
After a slanging match of several weeks in which the two newspaper executives swapped accusations and insults, Blyden filed a criminal libel accusation against Neville, who is also vice-president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the country’s leading journalists’ union. A warrant for Neville’s arrest was issued on 5 February and he was arrested yesterday while hiding out in Freetown.
Blyden, who owns several companies, is a controversial figure and was described by one journalist as a “self-proclaimed press spokesperson for government ministers and people in power.” A close associate of Vice-President Solomon Berewa, a possible successor to President Kabbah, she has often attacked journalists working for the privately-owned press, above all Neville.
When Neville was elected SLAJ vice-president, Awareness Times ran a front-page photo of him with the caption “A Reckless Fool.” The Standard Times launched a smear campaign against Blyden last December, with accusations about her past, her intentions and her family background, and insinuating that she used the newspaper to settle scores with her former lovers.
The campaign culminated last month with the publication of a photomontage showing a nude Blyden in a lewd pose alongside the former head of the RUF rebels, Foday Sankoh, whose eyes were fixed on her lower abdomen.
Following a seminar in October 2005 on the role of the media, Bernadette Cole, the head of the Independent Media Commission (a regulatory body), announced that she had received a letter from President Kabbah in which he requested a reform of the criminal defamation law, known as the Public Order Act.
During a subsequent meeting with journalists, the president’s spokesman confirmed this desire, attributing it to “President Kabbah’s new way of thinking about free speech and press freedom.” But since then, nothing has been done. A presidential election is due to be held in July.