As Sierra Leone’s coastal capital awoke to the staccato rhythm of gunfire last Sunday, Canadian journalist Stephen Douglas Lett stood on his apartment balcony near downtown Freetown and sent phone messages to friends and colleagues.
Renegade soldiers had breached the city’s largest barracks, pilfering ammunition in what authorities would later call an attempted coup d’état.
“Fighting continues across Freetown,” Mr. Douglas told a Globe and Mail journalist. “And I can hear the gunshots and explosions in my neighbourhood.”
As rogue soldiers fled through the city that day, they unlocked the gates of the country’s largest jail, releasing more than 2,000 prisoners onto the streets.
Around 10 a.m., Mr. Douglas decided to venture out: “I haven’t heard gunshots or explosions in about 20 minutes,” he told the Globe journalist. “I’m going to take a short tour on my motorbike.”
A few minutes later, a police officer found his slumped body at a roundabout near a police station, where he had been interviewing witnesses to the day’s chaos, just a stone’s throw from his home. The policeman said he had suffered a heart attack. He was taken to a nearby military hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
But the police officer’s account has been met with skepticism among Sierra Leone’s journalists, many of whom had been mentored by Mr. Douglas as students. The conflicting narratives surrounding his final moments – including reports of a gunfight at the spot where authorities say he died – mirrored the political and social complexities he had dedicated his life to deciphering.
Two days after his death, at a crowded news conference, Sierra Leone’s Information Minister, Chernor Bah, gave a eulogy for Mr. Douglas, portraying his death as the result of a heart attack on a tumultuous day. But as the session progressed, the questions from local journalists brought to light the rumours that had been swirling through the city: that he had been hit by a bullet.
In a revelation that chipped a crack in the dam of the official statements, Mr. Bah and a senior police commander acknowledged that the cause of the Canadian journalist’s death was still unknown. His body has been held at the military hospital, awaiting an autopsy that has no scheduled date yet.
Questions have persisted. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has lodged an official request for information, seeking answers from the government about his death.
Mr. Douglas, born in the Toronto area on May 29, 1963, and educated at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, began his career as a photographer in some of history’s harshest moments. His photos showed the waning days of South African apartheid in the early 1990s and the harrowing depths of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
But the fervour of capturing the moment, he felt, often eclipsed empathy and understanding. This reshaped his life, steering him toward a path where his role was not to tell the story, but to empower others to narrate their own.
After returning to Canada, he immersed himself in health reporting, taking up editing jobs at a variety of medical publications, before shifting into educational roles. Teaching stints at Sheridan College and St. Lawrence College saw him guide prospective journalists through photojournalism and creative writing, foreshadowing a role that would come to define the rest of his life.
Mr. Douglas returned to Africa in 2009, this time to Sierra Leone, where his dual expertise in media and education would converge. He became a mentor and trainer to young local journalists, always seeing their potential. He dedicated himself to strengthening the country’s media, volunteering at scores of local newsrooms and coaching an incalculable number of reporters and students.
Mr. Douglas spent most of his waking hours guiding Sierra Leone’s journalists with a patience and perseverance that seemed inexhaustible. Many viewed his work with skepticism, but he never lost his resolve.
He lived a modest life in his adopted homeland, in solidarity with those whose lives were a daily negotiation with scarcity. His wardrobe was a collection of African wax cloth shirts. Jollof rice was his favourite dish. He gave away much of his income to local families to pay for school fees, transport costs and other expenses.
He remained unabashedly Canadian, a vibrant splash of red and white in a landscape of green and blue. He manoeuvred a large red motorcycle through the country, marked unmistakably by the maple-leaf flag he had added to his helmet. In a city where Canada has no formal embassy, Mr. Douglas became an unofficial ambassador, extending generous friendship and support to his fellow Canadians.
As news of his death broke, Canadians across Africa lauded him, as did Sierra Leone’s journalists.
“He would stay long hours into the night at our office editing stories,” recalled Kelvin Lewis, former president of SLAJ and owner of Awoko Newspaper, where Mr. Douglas volunteered for many years.
“Stephen always wanted to help people, always trying to work with journalists to make them better. He was such a genuinely kind man, so caring, and would go out of his way to help at any chance.”
In his final years, Mr. Douglas immersed himself in trying to unravel the 2018 murder of an American citizen who had been visiting her father, a well-known politician in Freetown.
Planning to write a book on the case, he made regular visits to the country’s largest prison to bring food and books to the man who was charged with the murder. He was convinced there was more to the case than the authorities had said.
It was a search for a truth that seemed to slip further away with each day – just as his own death, with its cloud of unanswered questions, has become an enigma of the kind that he pursued throughout his Sierra Leone life.
With a report from Geoffrey York in Johannesburg.