Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY: Sierra Leone’s Libel Laws Under Fire

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, May 3 2005 (IPS) - On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (May 3), Sierra Leonean journalists aren’t so much celebrating media freedom as girding themselves for a legal battle over press rights.

"We think the time is now to challenge in court the seditious libel laws which hang as a sword of Damocles over our heads," says Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ).

"These laws are inconsistent with the constitution of the republic which provides for freedom of expression."

The legislation in question, contained in the Public Order Act of 1965, criminalizes the publication, distribution and even possession of material that may cause "public disaffection" against the president and other officials.

Breach of the act is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years and, in the case of newspaper owners and publishers, a possible ban on their publications.

Since its promulgation, this colonial-era law has been used by governments of various stripes – both elected civilian administrations and military regimes – to silence those who asked uncomfortable questions about leaders of the day.

The latest person to find himself at odds with the act is Paul Kamara, managing editor of a vibrant, independent tabloid called ‘For di People’.

Kamara is currently serving a four-year jail term at the maximum security prison in Sierra Leone’s capital – Freetown. His crime: publishing an article that questioned the integrity of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah while the latter was a senior civil servant in the 1960s.

According to the Vienna-based International Press Institute’s ‘2004 World Press Freedom Review’, Kamara’s paper challenged "the fact that the Speaker of Parliament, Edmond Cowan, had defended President Kabbah in Parliament after accusations.that the president had been found guilty in 1968 by a commission of inquiry into fraud."

At the time, the head of state was working as permanent secretary at the Ministry of Trade.

Kamara’s publication of the commission’s findings, in serial form, and his trenchant commentaries on the matter angered Kabbah – and ultimately resulted in the editor’s incarceration.

"In seditious libel, facts are no defence," says barrister Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie, who has represented Kamara in another, similar matter. "What the prosecution seeks to establish is how much public disaffection or chaos the publication is likely to cause."

The SLAJ is preparing to challenge the Public Order Act before the Supreme Court this week, with help from the Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), which provides free services for poor persons. The centre also takes on cases that involve civil and individual liberties.

"The criminal libel laws are an abrogation of the right to free speech. It negates our constitution and impedes especially the work of journalists," says Melron Nicol-Wilson, executive director of LAWCLA.

"LAWCLA will offer free services to SLAJ because it is a justified cause: fighting against a draconian and an outdated law left behind by the colonial powers."

Government, however, is standing its ground on the matter – insisting that the Public Order Act is needed to protect citizens from journalistic abuses.

"The libel laws contained in the Public Order Act are very relevant because our government has the obligation to protect the rights of all Sierra Leoneans," says Frederick Carew, attorney general and minister of justice.

"Imagine a journalist has been paid or bribed to libel a government official or private individual who has spent dozens of years building his or her character and reputation?"

The attorney general has urged SLAJ to recommend measures that would help reduce what he describes as "irresponsible journalism".

A further statement by Carew has been viewed by some as an invitation to self-censorship by reporters: "We would prefer the journalists regulate themselves and try to be responsible."

Such comments anger Richie Gordon, editor of another vocal tabloid, ‘Peep’.

"The government talks about its democratic credentials and yet keeps the draconian libel laws in the books. I think those laws have to be expunged," he says.

Adds reporter Zainab Kanu, "I think the government is toying with democracy. It has to scrap these obnoxious laws and allow people to express themselves freely."

Tensions between government and the independent press are expected to heighten ahead of general elections scheduled for 2007.

For much of the 1990s, Sierra Leone was gripped by a civil war between rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and a succession of presidents and coup leaders. The war was, to a considerable extent, fought over control of the West African state’s diamond resources.

Widespread human rights abuses took place during the conflict, notably the amputation of limbs by the RUF. Following a 1999 ceasefire, United Nations peace-keepers were deployed in Sierra Leone, and the war was finally declared over in January 2002.

Kabbah swept to power in elections held later that year, and in June 2004 a United Nations-backed court began trying persons accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes in Sierra Leone.

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