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Sierra Leone22 May 2009

Newspaper publisher is victim of judicial extortion

The amount of bail which a Freetown court has set for the release of Sylvia Blyden, the publisher and editor of the independent newspaper Awareness Times, is tantamount to judicial extortion, Reporters Without Borders said today.

The court yesterday demanded 50 million leones (16,000 US dollars) in bail to free Blyden, who has been charged with publishing false information in a 12 May article about an alleged extramarital affair involving President Ernest Bai Koroma. Blyden turned herself into Freetown police the day before.

“This sum would be laughing matter if the case were not so serious,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It looks as if Blyden is being personally punished. We urge the authorities to stop persecuting her and to act fairly by releasing her unconditionally.” Blyden has received several death threats.

20.05.09 - President’s men target two journalists for attack

Reporters Without Borders today voiced its concern for journalist Sylvia Blyden, forced into hiding after receiving death threats, and for Umaru Sitta Turay, who suffered a vicious knife attack.

Both journalists were targeted for attack because they had allegedly “libelled” Sierra Leone’s president, the worldwide press freedom organisation said, urging the head of state to call off the “witch-hunt” against them.

Sylvia Blyden, publisher of the independent newspaper Awareness Times has been in hiding in fear of her life after the paper carried an article written by her on 12 May, headlined “Fake First Lady: President’s Sweetheart in Kailahun Mess”, referring to an extramarital affair involving the president.

She told Reporters Without Borders on the phone that she had been summoned by police and received death threats. On the president’s orders, his press spokesman, Sheka Shekito Tarawallie, had sent police looking for her, accusing her of “seditious libel”.

A few days before Sylvia Blyden’s article appeared, this same official, who is also a journalist, wrote an article in the privately owned newspaper The Torchlight, insinuating that Blyden was having an affair with, among others, the leader of the opposition. He also made allegations against her last year, claiming that she prostituted herself to win favours from the government.

Umaru Sitta Turay, editor of the bi-weekly New People in Freetown, was slashed about the throat with a knife on 14 May. His assailants were Alimamy Turay, a photographer working for the presidency and a supporter of the ruling All People’s Congress Party (APC), known as Tunde. They had burst into the journalist’s office and accused him of being close to his colleague, Sylvia Blyden and of serving the interests of the opposition by writing articles sullying the reputation of the president. The journalist escaped serious injury.

“The vilification campaign against Sylvia Blyden of the past few weeks is shameful and has reached an alarming level in the past few days”, Reporters Without Borders said, adding: “The president’s press spokesman appears to have some direct responsibility for these incidents”. “We urge the head of state to give a public guarantee of this journalist’s safety. If he considers he has been defamed, he has other means of seeking damages, including legal, rather than going in for a witch-hunt”.

The editor of tabloid newspaper The Exclusive, David Jabatti, was physically assaulted by APC supporters on 13 March. Three days later two radio stations, Radio Unity and Rising Sun Radio, were closed by the authorities in Freetown.

Sierra Leone is ranked 114th out of 173 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2008 world press freedom index.

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15 May - Sierra Leone
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in the annual report
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