Monday, January 30, 2017
Outpour of support for repeal of criminal libel law
By Kemo Cham
[First published on www.politicosl.com] The first national symposium on the Seditious Criminal Libel law in Sierra Leone went under way on Tuesday with chorus of calls for speedy action to repeal it.
The law is part of the notorious Public Order Act designed to ensure law and order but which many say have sometimes been used to limit civil liberties.
Campaigners are particularly concerned with Part V of the Act which deals with defamation. They say it has been used to stifle freedom of expression and discouraged the growth of the media industry because of its criminalization of libel.
Accused face jail term of up to three years, plus fine.
Campaigners want the law to be replaced with a civil law.
The symposium held at the Miatta Conference Center in the west end of Freetown was designed to allow stakeholders discuss the possible alternatives. Journalists, civil society activists, diplomats, and even politicians, were unanimous in their condemnation of the law, which some described as a bad piece of legislation which should be repealed.
The symposium was organized by the Ministry of Information and Communication in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ).
The criminal libel laws are not just for journalists but they are for everybody, SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis declared in a statement during the official opening presided over by Minister of Information and Communication, Mohamed Bangura, and attended by representatives of the embassy of Ireland and the High Commission of UK.
The two European governments funded the organization of the symposium.
The UK government hired two media consultants who designed the format of the ongoing deliberation that’s scheduled to end on Wednesday with a workshop at the British Council on Tower Hill.
A change in the law is an important aspect of the country’s development agenda, said UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone Guy Warrington, in a speech delivered on his behalf.
The Criminal Libel Law was enacted in 1965. Analysts say it was targeted at opponents of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party-led government at the time, among them journalists, many of whom have been jailed under it.
Under this law the truth is not necessarily a defence, which, according to many activists, makes it the worst law in the country’s law books.
It is thought that about 40 journalists have fallen foul of the law within the last 25 years.
According to the Law Reform Commission, Sierra Leone and Canada are the only two countries in the world which have the Criminal Libel law in their law books.
Media rights campaigners say the law has contributed hugely to preventing the development of the media because investors are afraid to invest, while well trained practitioners are reluctant to join field because of the poor working condition associated with it.
It has also notably prevented women from holding key position in the field for fear of being arrested or jailed, noted Ransford Wright, Coordinator of the Media Reform Coordinating Group.
“It is the fear of going to jail that is breeding a subtle culture of intimidation,” he said as part of a comprehensive presentation on the law.
Opposition politicians also experienced a fair share of the unfriendly nature of the law. That’s why President Ernest Bai Koroma, as an opposition leader in 2007, promised to repeal the law when elected. That was about nine years ago and the President has barely two years before he leaves office.
He has already been criticized for failing to fulfill his promise.
But Information Minister Mohamed Bangura assured that there would be a new law by the end of Koroma’s term.
“Our government is committed to repealing this act and we are going to repeal it, as long as I remain the minister of Information and Communication,” he vowed.
The first day of the symposium took the form of presentations and discussions from representatives of key institutions, from the Law Reform Commission, the Sierra Leone Bar Association, to the Media Reform Coordinating Group, as well as the Center for Accountability and the Rule of Law.
What became clear at the meeting is that everyone supports the idea that the law is bad. But what should it be replaced with remains the question to be answered by the end of the two days discussion.
Inspector General of Police, Alieu Francis Munu, said the police had no intension of standing on the way of a review of the law, hence necessary safeguards were put in place to protect the citizens.
Efforts to have this law reformed have been on for about four decades. Even the post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission report recommended a review of the law, whose implementation was cited among factors that led to the civil war.