By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
Leaked correspondence from Sierra Leone’s Office of National Security (ONS) show that the Office of the President is planning “necessary steps” to prevent Africanist Press from publishing investigative reports detailing corruption in the Maada Bio administration.
For over two years, Africanist Press has published exclusive reports detailing high profile corruption across leading sectors of 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 unlawfully sacking and suspending two of the country’s most senior auditors along with scores of other civil servants in the Ministry of Finance and other agencies on the suspicion that they provided information to Africanist Press.
New leaked documents from the President’s Office reviewed by Africanist Press confirmed that meetings were recently held between 21st April 2022 and 28th April 2022 at State House to discuss “the implication of publications of comparative salaries and allowances of military officers and other public sector workers in Sierra Leone by Africanist Press.”
Minutes of the meetings show that senior government officials in the President’s Office, the Internal Affairs Ministry, the Vice President’s Office, and the Office of National Security (ONS) concluded that “Africanist Press should be stopped from its continued publication of articles and analyses that have the tendency to undermine the peace and stability of Sierra Leone.” It is unclear what “should be stopped” means in practical terms; however, a lawyer contacted by Africanist Press explains that “the underlying implication is restriction of press freedoms, especially the human rights of Africanist Press reporters.”
Sierra Leonean and international law guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. Two years ago, Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio signed an amendment to the country’s Public Order Act of 1965, repealing a 55-year-old seditious libel section that criminalized free speech, gaining him significant ratings in the international press index. But despite a diverse media landscape and the removal of criminal libel laws, citizens who have recently criticized the regime have become targets of arbitrary arrest and detention.
In the leaked correspondence, State House officials discussed ways to stop Africanist Press, including issuing instructions to the Independent Media Commission (IMC), Sierra Leone’s media regulatory agency to find ways to prevent Africanist Press from publishing and disseminating its reports.
In one document, senior security officials in the President’s Office note 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 a recent high-level security meeting convened at the State House in which discussions centered on how to potentially respond to the Africanist Press publications of salary disparities in the Maada Bio administration.
The leaked documents also show that instructions were issued to the ONS to meet with the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and other government institutions to find ways to stop Africanist Press from continuously publishing information that, officials said, would “cause unrest in the country.”
In one of the letters (NSA/113/02) dated 4th May 2022, National Security Coordinator Abdulai Caulker wrote to the IMC requesting assistance on how to “deal with Africanist Press.”
“The audacity of Africanist Press in publishing and mischievously analyzing salaries and allowances of public sector workers has the potential to cause unrest in the country. More worrisome is the reference Africanist Press made to the military, indicating by comparison that they are far worse in salaries and emoluments.,” Caulker said, adding that “the Office of National Security (ONS) suspects it is a deliberate attempt by Africanist Press to stir disaffection in the military that may cause them to resort to unprofessional behavior.”
ONS officials have asked the IMC to “use your good office to dissuade Africanist Press from its continued publication of inflammatory articles and analyses that has the tendency to undermine the peace and stability of Sierra Leone.”
The IMC is the institution established to register and regulate mass media institutions in Sierra Leone. The IMC Act of 2020 provides in Section 6 that “the Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority in the execution of its functions.” It is not clear from the leaked documents what the IMC’s position is on the ONS request.
However, in another correspondence to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Caulker also wrote that officials “are concerned about recent publications by the Africanist Press on social media and the implications such publications may have for the country’s peace and stability.”
Caulker, however, could not comment on the letters when contacted by Africanist Press, saying he was attending the State Opening of the 5th Session of the Sierra Leone Parliament by the President.
The recent developments followed Africanist Press publications of Sierra Leonean government payroll data that shows large salary disparities between leading members of the administration as compared to teachers and soldiers. Payroll records published by Africanist Press show that the lowest paid finance official on a sample list of 30 randomly selected officials from Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Finance are each earning 10 times the monthly salaries of Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels, and 40 times more the monthly salaries of NCOs.
The released payroll data also showed that the combined monthly salaries of the 30 listed finance officials — amounting to Le1,918,279,254.00 (about US$200,000) each month — could pay the total monthly salaries of at least 1,747 soldiers, including junior officers and NCOs.
When campaigning for the presidency in 2018, Julius Maada Bio promised to address salary disparities in the public service. “If we are to restore credibility to the service, we must coordinate the wage bill. If we are to enhance staff moral and improve on service delivery, we must control the wage bill. Wages and Salaries must be harmonized based on fairness and equity in the use of public resources,” Maada Bio stated in his campaign manifesto of 2018, while emphasizing that “a commissioner or a director or director general must have an aligned appropriate grading within the civil service comparable to other public sector workers.”
Four years in office, the Bio administration has reneged on its promise to establish a Wages and Compensation Commission to address the existing wage disparities among public sector workers in Sierra Leone. Instead, civil servants, including teachers, who have demanded for salary harmonization have either been suspended or arrested and detained.