“Mr. Chairman, while it may be accurate to suggest that the period 1968-1992 was characterized by poor governance, it was certainly not the genesis of the problem. The emergence of poor governance in Sierra Leone should be traced as far back as 1964. In 1965, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) led regime of Sir Albert Margai passed the now infamous Public Order Act 1965 which is currently the subject of intense criticisms by the media for muzzling press freedom…Mr. Chairman, we appreciate the effort of the Review Panel in refreshing our sub-conscious mind to our past which was characterized by poor governance as the basis of the decade-long war. We have since undertaken major transformational initiatives to redress that past. We have conducted three free, fair and peaceful multi-party elections and about to conduct the fourth one on the 17th of November 2012. We are working on passing the Freedom of Information Bill into an Act of Parliament. The debate on expunging the criminal libel aspect of the 1965 Public Order Act is on course”.
The above excerpts – an explicit admission of the monstrous characterization of the Public Order Act – are part of President Koroma’s presentation on the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Country Report to the APRM Forum in Addis Ababa on 28 January 2012.
That the law is “infamous” and therefore, a subject of scathing attack by the media on the establishment for its existence is no longer in contention. Moreover, that “the debate on expunging the criminal libel aspect of the 1965 Public Order Act is on course” is nothing new. What is also not new is the on-going work on “passing the Freedom of Information Bill into an Act of Parliament”. What keeps baffling media scholars and practitioners and other interested people in society though is why our politicians across the political spectrum are maintaining such an obnoxious law in our law books despite their promises to get rid of it when they come to power.
Now, I will return to and agree with the President’s statement that the SLPP passed the Public Order Act in 1965. What he did not say however is that the APC effectively used the same law to silence all forms of opposition during its nearly 25 years in power, 14 of which was a one-party dictatorship. Similarly, the Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party returned to power in 1996 and spent almost 11 years in power without expunging the law. And while, it can be argued that during that period, the government did not prosecute people leading to convictions under the Public Order Act, President Kabbah took newspaper publisher and editor Paul Kamara (now a government minister) to court under the Criminal Libel Law.
And back to the APC. In the 2007 elections Ernest Koroma, as opposition leader then, made firm commitments to the people of Sierra Leone that among other things, his government would repeal the criminal libel aspect of the Public Order Act. Interestingly, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, then president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), was on rooftops shouting for both the repeal of the criminal libel law and the passing of a Freedom of Information Law to the extent that he became a pain in the neck of the previous SLPP government, with the latter coming under severe bashing by sections of the media. Four years into power, President Koroma said his government would consider “reviewing” the law. Interestingly indeed! What was a commitment to repealing a bad law is now being considered for a review. And I bet the government and opposition parties would face the people of Sierra Leone with another commitment to repealing the Criminal Libel Law in the run up to the elections.
Meanwhile, Ernest Koroma’s commitment was not confined to repealing the Criminal Libel Law. He also promised that his government would pass the Freedom of Information Bill into law if given the mandate to form a government. His promised came against the backdrop of sustained campaign and outreach that culminated into the proposal of the FOI Bill in 2005 by the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI) in cooperation with Article 19, the London-based human rights organization. In 2008, Sierra Leone’s Information and Communication Minister, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo was reported to have made a commitment to passing the Bill into law. And three years since then, I.B. Kargbo and his government keep shifting the goalpost. In fact, in the just-concluded Commonwealth Forum on Media and Development in Sierra Leone, the Minister of Information and Communication is reported to have expressed hope (no commitment this time round) that the bill would be passed in the next six months. Ironically, such a statement does not create a ray of hope for the country given the minister’s inconsistency on the issue. Because of this apparent lack of political will to act, one would therefore question the government’s commitment to transparency and fighting graft.
To create the impression that it is committed to running an open and transparent government, the President very recently launched the transparency Sierra Leone portal, an initiative which the government said would enhance open governance and ensure accountability by putting government information online. Laudable initiative indeed but fall far short of the expectation of some section of the public that expects much from the government. Reacting to the initiative, SDI Director, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai said the setting up of the portal was just another smokescreen. He pointed out that the portal would only enable the government to give out information it wanted the public to consume and not one that is requested by the public
But why is Parliament and by extension, government jittery over passing a Freedom of Information law, and what are the advantages of having such a law in Sierra Leone? The answer to the former question ultimately lies in the reluctance of our public officials to be accountable to the people. Some members of Parliament have even said in private discussions that passing the Bill into law would amount to a “political suicide mission”. As for the latter question, the answer was succinctly captured in a public lecture delivered at the United States Embassy in October last year by Visiting Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Umaru Bah. He argued with some cogent examples that more than any other legislation, the FOI legislation is the most significant determinant of whether or not a state will become an information society and a knowledge economy. He noted there was economic value to information and that the business community could likely become the primary beneficiaries of a FOI law, contrary to the public notion that the media would stand to benefit the most.
In the light of these advantages and to enhance a transparent society characterised by accountable governance to which the government says it is committed, there is an urgent need for the government to bridge words with actions by decriminalising libel and legislating the FOI law. The public is tired of listening to megaphone rhetorics!