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SIERRA LEONE: Journalists at War with Highest Court

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Oct 9 2009 (IPS) - Umaru Fofana looks dishevelled. His hair is overgrown and people who do not know him could be mistaken for thinking he just joined an Afro band. And his hanging beard will surely solicit suspicious glances.

But Fofana is not some musician or an unkempt hobo. He is the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and his appearance is all for the cause of media freedom.

"I will not have a haircut until the Supreme Court gives a ruling on our matter; as a result I have grown more beard and hair on my head than any other time since I was born." The SLAJ is presently at loggerheads with the country’s Supreme Court – over the failure by the court to deliver a verdict six months after final arguments on the SLAJ’s case. By law, the court is bound to deliver a verdict in three months.

The association petitioned the court for an interpretation and repeal of the criminal and seditious libel law contained in the Public Order Act of 1965.

Under the current law a journalist, or anyone who writes and publishes a story can be arrested and jailed whether or not what they published or said was true. Several journalist have been arrested detained or jail under this act.

The SLAJ argued that this was detrimental to media freedom and freedom of expression. The SLAJ also argued that the Act contradicted the country’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

But the association is still awaiting a ruling on the matter, and the court’s delay, Fofana says, is unconstitutional.

"The court has still not given its verdict and this is a contravention of the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution, which states that every court established under the constitution shall deliver its decision in writing not later than three months after the conclusion of the evidence and final addresses or arguments," said Fofana.

The SLAJ went as far as imposing a temporary media blackout on the judiciary in order to force the Supreme Court to rule.

But the association later dropped the blackout after the country’s President Earnest Bai Koroma promised judgment would be delivered in mid-September. But this is yet to happen.

Elwin Bailor, the Master and Registrar of the Courts of Sierra Leone told IPS that there is no problem or reasons why the court has not given a verdict up till now. Bailor refused to explain further.

When asked when the court will finally give its rulings, Bailor hesitantly said "soon, pretty soon," and ended the conversation. President Koroma is on record as saying that government was interested in reviewing the criminal libel law but could not do so while the matter is in court. "This is why I feel ashamed for the country’s highest court’s continued violation of the constitution by failing to give a ruling on the case," Fofana sighed. Journalists and other citizens all over the country are questioning the separation of powers in the government; after President Koroma promised the verdict would be delivered last month.

Many are arguing that this ability of the president’s office to force the court to rule smacks of executive control over the courts. They pointed out that it is unsatisfactory that the Supreme Court can only be moved into action by direct appeals to the president. Rosemarie Blake, the programme director for Society for Democratic Initiatives – a non-governmental organisation that focuses on freedom of information and expression – expressed similar sentiments. "This standoff is totally undermining the fairness and independence of the Supreme Court. It is also affecting the of work journalists, especially in reporting sensitive issues that borders around government officials." "It is hard not to look at this situation as a ploy by government to continue to suppress press freedom." Blake added. Fofana agreed saying that the current law allowed corruption to continue. "Journalists feel hounded by the existence of this law, which inhibits their freedom to checkmate public officials. So it is as much in the interest of (financial) donors as it is in the interest of Sierra Leoneans to get this law expunged and have the Freedom of Information Bill passed into law."

Blake said her organisation was also calling for the repeal of the seditious libel law and the passing of a Freedom of Information Bill.

Last year Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone in its State of Human Rights report in of 2008 also recommended that Parliament should take immediate steps to repeal the seditious libel provisions in the Public Order Act, 1965 and enact the Freedom of Information Bill. The report had stated the current Act was still being used to control the media.

Inasmuch as the wrangling continues, Fofana’s hair keeps growing and only on the day the Supreme Court’s gives its ruling, will he set an appointment with the barber. How long that is nobody knows.

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