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SIERRA LEONE: Mixed Reactions to Libel Laws Ruling

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Dec 7 2009 (IPS) - Journalists in Sierra Leone can still be arrested and jailed for writing material considered “libel” regardless if what they published is true or not.

Secretary-general of the SLAJ, Mustapha Sesay, says his organisation is disappointed with the court's ruling.  Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

Secretary-general of the SLAJ, Mustapha Sesay, says his organisation is disappointed with the court's ruling. Credit: Mohamed Fofanah/IPS

The country’s Supreme Court recently threw out the case calling for an interpretation and repeal of current law. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), which brought the case to court, says the organisation is disappointed at the ruling and called it a serious blow to the battle for Press freedom.

The SLAJ had argued that the provisions of the 1965 Public Order Act, which stipulates prison terms for journalists guilty of libel, contradicted section 25 of the country’s 1991 National Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of expression.

Under the criminal libel law, a journalist or in fact anybody who writes and publishes material can be arrested and jailed, whether or not what they published or said was true. Several journalists have been arrested, detained or jailed under this act.

The SLAJ sought to have this aspect nullified, as the standard defence against a libel suit in developed countries is that the offending article is the truth.

“It is the toughest legal setback for the struggle for Press freedom, media pluralism and freedom of expression in Sierra Leone. This has far-reaching implications for professional media practice and democratic governance in the country,” said Mustapha Sesay, the SLAJ’s secretary-general.


The 44-page, three-hour judgment by the Supreme Court threw out the matter, ruling the provisions were in line with the country’s 1991 Constitution, and that “journalists were under no imminent threat”, Sesay said. “The court has kept us waiting since February 2008. They also flouted the provisions of the Constitution, which says that they should give a ruling three months after closing argument. Now, when they finally give their ruling nine months after, they throw out our case.”

“Actually, we did not expect much from them,” Sesay said, adding that Chief Justice Umu Tejan Jalloh, who heard the petition, had also been a member of the bench that had jailed Paul Kamara, editor of For Di People newspaper, a tabloid, for two years for “breaching the Public Order Act”.

Kamara was jailed for a series of articles in his newspaper alleging that the former President of Sierra Leone, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, was a “convict”, and constitutionally unfit to hold office. The articles focused on a 1967 Commission of Inquiry report that implicated Kabbah in embezzlement of public funds.

“How could Justice Jalloh now overturn her previous decision?” Sesay asked.

But not every journalist in the country is not against the court ruling. One such journalist is the editor for the Awareness Times newspaper, Dr Sylvia Blyden.

Blyden herself has been arrested and detained by the criminal investigation department in Freetown, for publishing a caricature of the state president, according to the State of Human Rights Report 2008.

But she still supports the law. “I do not think the criminal libel law should be repealed. I think it is quite in place. My arrest was government’s abuse of the criminal-libel law, like the way in which they are abusing other laws.

“We should also note that the criminal libel law does not only apply to journalists but to everybody, so I am never a victim of the criminal-libel law,” Blyden reasoned.

In an article stating her personal views on the repeal of the Public Order Act, Blyden said: “The Public Order Act of 1965 should remain firmly in place, until such time as a Parliamentary Act requiring that libel insurance be taken out by local newspapers and media houses is passed.”

According to Blyden, the criminal-libel law is the only legal provision that prevents certain SLAJ members from becoming “total journalistic despots” on the loose. “Some influential people had absolute carte blanche to turn white into black and black into white. They controlled what information the public was fed. If they did not like any person because of his or her views, they could put out the type of information that would make the public turn against that person, and effectively reduce the credibility of their viewpoints.”

Elean Shaw, a human rights activist, said she also felt the criminal libel law should stay, “simply because to every right there should be responsibility”.

“Journalists should be very careful about what they write in the papers, or what they say on the radio, because it is very difficult to take back what one has said wrongly about people who have worked very hard on their image.”

But Sesay maintains that government anti-corruption initiatives such as the Attitudinal Change campaign (a strategy to encourage all Sierra Leoneans to be less lethargic with regard to work, and change their attitudes to corruption and nationalism), will work only if the seditious-libel law is repealed, and a freedom of information Act introduced.

But deputy minister of information, Saidata Sesay, criticised the SLAJ for poor strategy in their fight against the seditious-libel law. She told IPS the Freedom of Information Bill had been sent to parliament by private organisations, and as they had not gone through the ministry they could not take the lead in piloting the Bill. The Freedom of Information Bill seeks to ensure public access to government records.

The deputy minister said: “SLAJ hurriedly went to court, and now the Supreme Court has upheld the seditious-libel laws, we just have to live with it.”

Meanwhile the SLAJ are considering the next line of action for the repeal of the criminal libel law. The issue was top of the agenda at their recent Annual General meeting in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone. The whole membership decided that since they have lost their legal battle, they will now continue to engage Parliamentarians and the cabinet for a repeal of the criminal libel law. “We want this law to be repealed at all cost and we are ready to bend over backwards to see that this obnoxious law is expunged from our law books”, Sesay stated. Betty Milton, a local reporter, revealed the mood of many journalists in the country when she stated the fight had come full circle.

“The fight for the repeal has come to the point where we started, we do not know where it will take us again,” Milton said. She added that the only option for journalists was to rely on the All People’s Congress government that had promised journalists during their election campaign that they will repeal the criminal libel law.

 
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