By Anne Baber Wallis, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
Leaked documents from the Office of the Attorney General of Sierra Leone provide new evidence on joint efforts undertaken by leading government officials and opposition party politicians to prevent Africanist Press from publishing its investigative reports on corruption and constitutional abuse by officials in the Maada Bio administration.
The leaked documents provided detailed evidence of several official meetings held between 15 April 2021 and 28 April 2022 at the Law Officers Department, the President’s Office, and the Office of National Security to plan official actions against Africanist Press and its editor, Chernoh Alpha Bah, for publishing articles that revealed “account details and transactions of clients of the Bank of Sierra Leone to the public without the knowledge and consent of the Bank of Sierra Leone.”
In the meetings, officials expressed worries that Africanist Press publications have the potential to affect “the nation and its relationship with international partners.” They noted in a briefing document (Criminal Complaint Against Chernoh A. M. Bah and Africanist Press), that reports by Africanist Press have the “dangerous knock-on effect of undermining the sacred trust which the Bank holds in the economy, which could in itself lead to economic and political instability.” Five copies of Africanist Press reports published between 5 January 2021 and 14 February 2021 were included in the briefing document as evidence in support of the government’s concerns.
The articles in question relate to banking transactions and details of President Julius Maada Bio’s travel expenditures, including more than US$1 million withdrawn from the Bank of Sierra Leone for a trip to Lebanon in September 2020, and more than US$5 million in illegal budgetary allocations to the Office of the First Lady, a non-statutory institution unauthorized to receive public funds under Sierra Leonean law. A memorandum recording the minutes of one of the meetings showed that officials were unable to find how Africanist Press obtained the financial records; hence, they concluded that “Chernoh Bah and Africanist Press conspired with unknown persons to unlawfully access the said information.”
High-level officials from the Law Officers Department, the Office of the President, the Central Bank of Sierra Leone, Office of National Security, and the Sierra Leone Parliament attended these meetings. In correspondence (LAD/Gov3/10) dated 20 April 2021 and addressed to the Attorney General and Justice Minister, Bank Governor Kelfala Kallon formally requested that a “criminal complaint should be filed against Chernoh Bah and Africanist Press for unlawful possession of information belonging to the Bank of Sierra Leone and have made use of the said information without being legally entitled to do so.”
The Bank Governor stated that Africanist Press publications would undermine the Bank’s ability to maintain a stable financial system and support the general economic policy of the government. “It is therefore in light of the concerns expressed above that we hereby request as a matter of extreme urgency that the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice takes speedy and necessary criminal action against Mr. Chernoh Bah and Africanist Press on behalf of Bank of Sierra Leone,” the Bank Governor stated, adding that criminal action against Africanist Press is necessary to serve “as a future deterrent to any errant publishers intending similar disruptive and injurious behavior.”
“The exact line of action which should be taken in this regard we respectfully leave to the competent opinion of your good office,” he said, adding, “the Bank of Sierra Leone stands ready to provide you with any further assistance with regard to any enquiries you may have on this delicate and pressing matter.”
In May 2021, the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice jointly agreed with the Bank Governor to press criminal charges against Africanist Press for publishing banking details and financial transactions showing the President and First Lady’s expenses. The permission followed the Bank Governor’s letter (LAD/GOV1) dated 12 May 2021 insisting that legal action must be taken against the journalists. “In the event that your office [sic] not being inclined to pursue any cause of action herein, we hereby respectfully request that you grant the Bank the necessary fiat to enable us to proceed accordingly,” the Governor added. Records from the Attorney General’s Office show that the President authorized the decision to dispatch a team of legal officers from the Law Officers Department with the Bank Governor to Washington, DC and New York in June 2021 to explore the possibility of pressing legal action against Africanist Press, including extradition requests for Chernoh Bah.
A confidential source in the Attorney General’s Office in Freetown informed Africanist Press that the Bank Governor consulted a US law firm, but the Sierra Leonean lawyers sent to Washington and New York advised against legal action saying that, “the content of the Africanist Press reports do not constitute a crime since evidence shows that the published records are factually accurate.”
“They found out they couldn’t do anything against Africanist Press in the United States, and they returned disappointingly,” the source said, adding, “the only option left was to investigate who was providing the leaks in Freetown. Since no suspect was found at BSL, they concluded that the Audit Service could be the only possible source of information. So, the Auditor General became the victim.”
Since March 2020, Africanist Press has published several exclusive reports detailing high profile corruption across the Sierra Leonean government, including the Office of the President, the First Lady, and the Chief Minister’s Office. Government officials initially reacted to the publications by secretly sacking and suspending scores of civil servants in the Ministry of Finance and other agencies on the suspicion that they were providing information to Africanist Press. In October 2021, for example, 27 senior internal auditors in the Finance Ministry were summarily suspended on the suspicion that they provided information on salary disparities in the civil service contained in an Africanist Press report published in September 2021.
In mid-November 2021, the President suspended the head of the national auditing agency after the agency highlighted financial and procurement irregularities while investigating the President and the First Lady’s travel expenditures and procurement activities for FY2020. Audit officials reportedly discovered that the President’s Office had submitted several forged documents, including fake hotel receipts and invoices to the Audit Service as part of the President’s travel expenditures for FY2020.
By December 2021, Africanist Press learned that over 170 civil servants, mostly internal auditors in the Finance Ministry and Office of the President, were indefinitely suspended or dismissed on grounds of suspicion that they were informants of Africanist Press.
Leaked documents from the President’s Office reviewed by Africanist Press in May 2022 later showed that meetings were routinely held between 21 April 2022 and 28 April 2022 at State House to again discuss “the implication of publications of comparative salaries and allowances of military officers and other public sector workers in Sierra Leone by Africanist Press.” In the leaked correspondence, State House officials discussed ways to stop Africanist Press, including issuing instructions to the IMC to find ways to prevent Africanist Press from publishing and disseminating its reports. In one document, senior security officials in the President’s Office noted that “most of the publications of Africanist Press have been inherently inflammatory, either causing disaffection amongst the public or inciting them against the government.” Another confidential correspondence provided more details about recent high-level security meetings convened at the State House in which discussions centered on how to potentially stop the Africanist Press publications. In late May 2022, government supporters and political leaders in Freetown made public calls asking authorities to treat Africanist Press reports as treason, saying the news organization is run by “dissident elements.” The ongoing threats against Africanist Press led the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to issue a statement on 31 May 2022 asking Sierra Leonean authorities to cease their harassment of the Africanist Press and its publisher, Chernoh Bah.
“Sierra Leonean authorities should cease their harassment of the Africanist Press and must investigate the death threats against its publisher, Chernoh Alpha Bah, instead of trying to censor him,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, from New York.
Since March 2020, Chernoh Bah has been the target of death threats and other vitriolic attacks on social media by known supporters of both the ruling party and leading opposition politicians in the country.
“The growing threats against Africanist Press and the call for my own extradition from the United States for prosecution in Sierra Leone have been escalated because our work exposes not only the ruling party, but it affects diverse economic and political interests of elite groups and networks that held the country hostage for the last sixty years,” he said.
In the last two months, Africanist Press has been highlighting the relationship between financial corruption and political corruption in Sierra Leone, showing the multiple ways it affects independence of state institutions, including the judiciary, the police department, and other similar agencies.
“We discovered an entrenched alliance between opposition leaders in Parliament and the incumbent president, and this relationship affects the enforcement of transparency and accountability laws and regulations across all sectors of the government,” Bah said, adding, “the corrupt relationship between parliament and the presidency negates the proper functioning of democracy and good governance in the country.”
Opposition parliamentarians have responded to Bah’s critique by defending the president’s record on corruption. One opposition parliamentarian, Hon. Lahai Marah of the All Peoples Congress (APC), posted on his Facebook page that “all assertion [sic] against the present SLPP government of Sierra Leone on corruption and money laundering are not correct” and that he doubted “corruption claims against the Bio government” by Africanist Press.
Marah’s remarks followed an Africanist Press report published on 24 June 2022 revealing that MPs were discussing legislative proposals to amend Sierra Leone’s electoral laws in ways that might suppress thousands of potential voters who are most likely to vote against incumbent President Julius Maada Bio in next year’s elections.
The parliamentarian was forced to delete the Facebook post after dozens of reactions from his supporters who condemned the message as an unfortunate attempt to discredit and cast doubts on the work of Africanist Press.
“The opposition in Parliament and the ruling party are jointly fighting to silence us and this is why we face increasing threats to our freedom of speech and human rights,” Bah noted.
We attached here sample letters from the briefing document of the Sierra Leone government’s Criminal Complaint against Chernoh A. M. Bah and Africanist Press.