Social media plays central role in Sierra Leone political crackdown

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Social media has played a crucial part in calling worldwide attention to Sierra Leone political unrest, with Amnesty International joining appeals to the government of President Ernest Koroma to stop using Ebola emergency measures to curb freedom of speech and assembly.

Videos and reports of a series of protests in the U.S. and U.K. against repressive actions taken by the Koroma government have been posted on YouTube and Facebook, mainly by Sierra Leoneans abroad. The demonstrations seek to draw global attention to President Koroma’s alleged unconstitutional removal of his vice president, Samuel Sam-Sumana, claims of misappropriation by government officials of funds meant for the eradication of Ebola, and reprisals against protesters.

“Sierra Leone should stop using emergency regulations brought in to combat Ebola as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International said in a press release Tuesday. “Now that Ebola cases are reducing and schools have re-opened, the government should immediately review the State of Emergency provisions and ensure that only provisions strictly required to fight the Ebola epidemic remain in effect.”

Protests have been held in front of the White House at Lafayette Park In Washington, D.C., at an arrivals lounge at Dulles Airport in Texas, at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. and at No. 10 Downing Street in London. The April protest in front of the White House, for example, was organized with the help of a Youtube video.

The removal from office of Sam-Sumana came after he was accused of fraud, inciting violence in his home district of Kono, and other charges. His removal is seen as part of a broad crackdown on so-called anti-party activities.

In Sierra Leone itself, a broad shift over the past few weeks to social media to protest the crackdown appeared to have been spurred by, among other events, the arrest of 10 protesters demonstrating outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Freetown; the arrest on Sierra Leone’s Independence Day, April 27, and subsequent trial of 15 members of the main opposition party, the People’s Party, as well as a senior officer of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.

“Last month a man was charged with insulting the President after having forwarded a Whatsapp message he did not author,” Amnesty International also noted.

A march organized by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists for Independence Day was banned but, Amnesty noted, assemblies and events held by the governing All People’s Congress have been allowed.

A large percentage of the Sierra Leonean public believe that most of the media organizations in the country have been compromised, according to Murtala Kamara, CEO of Sierra SaloneJamboree, a Sierra Leone media and arts magazine. This has driven people to social media to express their views in a bid to hold political leaders to account, he said.

The CEO of the National Ebola Response Centre, Alfred Palo Conteh, had in January complained about social media posts containing incorrect information about fight to eradicate the Ebola virus in the country. A spokesman for the government, Abdulai Bayraytay, later confirmed in a radio interview in March that there were plans to regulate social media in the country. So far, the government has not detailed any plans.

“It depends on what the government regulations will entail,” Kamara noted. “I don’t think regulating the use of social media for good is wrong unless the government wants to use it as a strategy to stifle free speech.”

Traditional media has been slow to move to social media, Kamara noted.

“What happened in Sierra Leone is that the traditional media were not on top of situation when social media arrived in the country,” Kamara said. “It landed in the hands of young people who are not journalists and do not know about ethics or professionalism.”

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