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Cablegate: Sierra Leonean Editor Arrested in Controvery Over

VZCZCXRO2315
RR RUEHMA RUEHPA
DE RUEHFN #0412/01 1841306
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 031306Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY FREETOWN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1186
INFO RUEHZK/ECOWAS COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 FREETOWN 000412

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KPAO PGOV PHUM PREL SL
SUBJECT: SIERRA LEONEAN EDITOR ARRESTED IN CONTROVERY OVER
QADHAFI'S GENEROSITY

REF: FREETOWN 404

1.(U) The June 25-27 visit of Libyan leader Col.Muammar
Qadhafi to Sierra Leone has had a severe ripple effect that
has unsettled the country and led to the arrest of Phillip
Neville, editor of Freetown's "Standard Times" daily
newspaper. A controvery erupted when President Kabbah
publicly thanked Qadhafi on June 26 for providing two
shiploads of rice as well as other assistance (reftel). In a
country where the price and availability of rice are
emotional topics, the public, encouraged by inflammatory
media reports, immediately saw the gift as affirmation of
government corruption since there was no recollection of it
having been publicized. Neville's front page June 27
headline, "Bombshell - Col. Gaddaffi exposes Govt", made him
the Government's scapegoat for irresponsible journalism,
although by then the entire country had leapt to the same
conclusion.

2.(SBU) President Kabbah was infuriated, according to
insiders, that his carefully crafted diplomacy to elicit
assistance from Qadhafi had been misinterpreted. Much of the
media had already questioned the appropriateness of his
inviting Qadhafi and awarding him Sierra Leone's highest
honor when it was Qadhafi who had instigated Sierra Leone's
gruesome conflict by funding, arming, and training RUF leader
Foday Sankoh and NPFL leader Charles Taylor. Neville, who is
known for rushing to print without checking facts, was an
inviting target to blame. Furthermore, Neville, who is the
Vice President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journlists
(SLAJ), has not endeared himself to colleagues, and is being
sued by the female editor of "Awareness Times" for publishing
a photo of her head superimposed on the body of another naked
woman and accusing her of having been Sankoh's mistress.

3.(U) Neville was arrested on June 28 and charged on June 30
with one count of publishing false informtion under the
Public Order Act of 1965 for defamation as opposed to
seditious libel, which was the case when Paul Kamara, editor
of "For di People", was convicted in the last press trial in
2004 for inaccurate allegations about the President. (Note:
Kamara's conviction was overturned on appeal.) Neville had
been charged under Section 32(2) of the Act which reads: "any
person who publishes any false statement, or rumour or report
which is calculated to bring into disrepute any person who
holds an office under the Constitution, in the discharge of
his duties shall be guilty of an offense and liable to
conviction to a fine not exceeding five hundred leones (Note:
currently equivalent to U.S. 16 cents unlike 1965) or to
imprisonment not exceeding two years or both." He has also
been charged under Section 32(3) which is for the same
offense but "which is likely to injure the credit or
reputation of Sierra Leone or of the Government" and carries
the lesser penalties of 300 leones (currently about U.S. 10
cents) and/or imprisonment not to exceed twelve months.

4.(U) The Government's strong reaction reflects a genuine
concern that the rice issue, if not contained, could
destabilize the country. On June 29, armed youths attacked a
truck carrying rice in broad daylight in Freetown and stole
the entire load. According to news reports, the youths
defied "Government thieves" to stop them from taking their
"share of Qadhafi's donated rice." UNIOSIL reported that the
rice issue has generated unrest throughout the country that
could erupt into violence.

5.(U) In an effort to defuse the situation, the Government
called a rare press conference on June 29 chaired by Minister
of Information Kai-Kai that convoked the entire diplomatic
corps and government ministers in addition to the press.
Advisors to President Kabbah and other senior officials
explained in excrutiating detail that the Qadhafi donation
had been two consignments, not shiploads, of rice in 2001-02
that had been publicly announced and transparently sold and
distributed with the proceeds being used to establish the
National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT) program
for pensions. Contrary to the "Standard Times" report, they
noted, the President himself had cited the donation when
thanking Qadhafi for his assistance. The officials at the
press conference were emotional, clearly feeling that their
efforts to be transparent had been manipulated by the press
and, by inference, opposition political parties going into
the elections. No official had benefited from sale of the
Libyan rice, they insisted, and contrasted that with the sale
of U.S. PL-480 rice that was diverted in the early 1980's by
the opposition APC regime that produced a substantial debt
that was only recently written off by the U.S. Government in
the HIPC process.

6.(U) Although the press was invited to ask questions about
the rice, journalists only made statements concerning the

FREETOWN 00000412 002 OF 002


arrest of Phillip Neville, whom the officials had not
mentioned at all. Oddly some journalists applauded Neville's
arrest because of the national security situation, while
others noted that the matter should have been handled through
reasoned discussion with an opportunity for retraction of the
story. SLAJ and several newspaper journals have since called
for his release. Neville was granted unusually high bail of
200 million leones (approximately U.S. $67,000) the evening
of July 2, and is expected to be released on July 3.

7.(SBU) Comment: The rice issue is only the latest in series
of setbacks for President Kabbah and the SLPP as they head
into a very competitive presidential and parliamentary
election. Kabbah had hoped that the visits of UK Prime
Minister Tony Blair, Nigerian President Obasanjo, and Libyan
leader Qadhafi in the past month would showcase his own
presidency as he heads to retirement. Instead, Blair would
not travel from the airport to Freetown because of the
condition of local helicopters (one of which subsequently
crashed killing a Togolese minister among others); Obasandjo
evoked repressed feelings about war atrocities by Nigerian
ECOMOG peacekeepers; and Qadhafi produced outrage that he had
been invited at all. Furthermore, Kabbah's three-hour long
farewell speech to Parliament summarizing his
accomplishements was cynically ignored by most of the
country. All of these well-intended events have backfired,
putting Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party and its
presidential candidate, Vice President Berewa, on the
defensive.

8.(SBU) Comment continued: President Kabbah has no one but
himself to blame for announcing the Libyan rice donation
without clarifying that it had been made several years ago.
The press reports reflected public sentiment, and Kabbah
himself compounded the problem by making Neville a martyr for
press freedom. The charges against Neville are likely to be
dropped after Kabbah leaves office in August, but meanwhile
he has shot his own party in the foot. This being an
election year, the allegations of malfeasance will have legs
even if the Government's version of events is not
discredited. Assuming the threat to national stability is
defused, this episode may have the unintended benefit of
fueling efforts to repeal the Public Order Act as an
anachronistic law that violates constitutional guarantees for
freedom of the press. End Comment.

HULL

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