By Kemo Cham
Early this week the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) came under fire for demanding an editor to apologise for been ‘disrespectful’ to parliament.
The House of Representatives had been enraged by a letter from the editor of the Future Newspaper requesting information as part of an investigation into alleged misappropriation of public funds by lawmakers. Parliamentary majority leader, Ibrahim Bundu, reportedly ordered the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sierra Leone Police to detain the journalist, Moisa Kiekura, on contempt charges when he failed to turn up on time after been summoned by the House.
Many journalists were angered by the move by SLAJ, which initially argued that the journalist crossed the red line. It turned out, however, that the umbrella journalist body was looking at a bigger picture. It didn’t want to get the lawmakers upset in the middle of renewed efforts to have one of the most hated laws in the country reviewed.
In spite of an outward image suggesting the existence of a free press in Sierra Leone, journalists are working in a highly restrictive environment, thanks largely to the notorious Public Order Act. This seven-part pre-colonial legislation, passed in 1965, perhaps constitutes the single most obnoxious law in the country’s law books.
As its name suggests, it aims at ensuring public order, but journalists and media rights campaigners say it only serves to inhibit freedom of expression and of the press.
Part Five of the law, which deals with criminal defamation, is what concerns the journalist community the most. Under it, anyone who publishes or broadcasts anything false can go to jail for up to three years.
An even more loathsome thing is that the truth is not a defence under this law which notably provides for ludicrously multiple charges.
It is hated with passion by everyone, except politicians, who see it as some sort of an insurance policy. And they have skillfully used it to keep journalists off their back, say campaigners.
According to reports, at least 25 journalists have fallen foul of it in the last eight years. In some ways this number may appear small, but in actually fact it shows how effective the law has been.
Between 2014 and 2016, it has been invoked in not less than 10 times, mostly on journalists who were only briefly detained and didn’t get prosecuted, or appeared in court and later had an out-of-court settlement, or threatened to retract or face prosecution.
A most recent illustrative incident was in July, when a government minister ordered the detention of a journalist who wrote accusing him of abuse of authority. When asked, Major Ishmail Sengu Koroma, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, told Radio Democracy, among other excuses, that the journalist had used a word once used by his political opponent – Brigadier (rtd) Julius Maada Bio.
Kelvin Lewis, President of SLAJ, said the Public Order Act is being used by politicians to the effect that journalists are punished even before the court decides.
Politicians have been observed to invoke the law and have journalists detained on weekends. In some cases, as was the case in the July incident, arrest orders are delayed until Fridays evening, when courts are not expected to sit, so that the accused can be detained without bail, only to be released at the beginning of the week.
“This way the law serves as a constant threat to journalists, preventing them from asking questions,” said Lewis at a discussion forum recently.
For the last 20 years, SLAJ and other rights campaign groups have dedicated their time on efforts to have the law repealed.
The journalist union even unsuccessfully filed a case over it at the Supreme Court in2009.
But the appointment of current Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Bangura, has rekindled hopes of at least a review of the law.
Bangura, who claims he has himself become a victim of the law, has presided over several meetings since May this year. The ministry is hosting a national symposium on the law Tuesday, September 27.
“There is no way we can have that law repealed if we don’t take it to parliament…,” said Lewis, defending his decision to demand the Future editor to apologise to the angry lawmakers.
“This is the window we have after 20 years,” he said at the last meeting between the Information ministry and the Guild of Newspaper Editors.
President Ernest Bai Koroma popularly campaigned for the presidency in 2007 on the promise of repealing the law.
Surprisingly, for the whole of his first term in office [2007-2012], the president shied away from discussing it. In fact the law has been invoked in his name on a number of occasions.
Koroma and his supporters have insisted though that he was still committed to repealing it but have always stressed the need for a replacement.
“The public also needs protection. We want to encourage the press to be free but we want to ensure that they carry that with responsibility,” the President told the visiting head of the UN Peacebuilding Commission, Macharia Kamau, in June this year.
Sierra Leone’s post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the Lome Peace Accord, all call for a free press, the lack of which was identified among factors that led to the war. The TRC specifically calls for a repeal of the Criminal Libel law.
Campaigners say the law is a deterrent to investment in the media. And this, they argue, makes it difficult for the media to grow, translating into a prevalent poor working condition of journalists which has compromised the watchdog role of the press.
According to the law, when a paper is deemed to have defamed someone, everyone who participated in the production and distribution, from reporters to editors to printers, and even vendors, is liable for prosecution. This was seen at play in 2013 when two editors of the Independent Observer newspaper were detained for comparing the president to a rat.
Under this same law, in April last year, a man was jailed and denied bail for calling the president a ‘wounded beats’ on the social media platform, whatsapp.
An even more obnoxious aspect of this law is the section that deals with ‘seditious libel’, which is seen as specifically designed to shield politicians and government officials by making it risky for journalists, or anyone, to say anything displeasing to their ears.
This is where the truth is not a defense. All the prosecution has to do is prove how much contempt a publication can bring to government or the president, to the effect that it can cause chaos or unrest.
The head of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone recently called the law “unprogressive,” questioning its role in a democratic society.
Criminal defamation charges often attract “prohibitive bail bonds”, observed the West African Journalists Association in a statement earlier this year criticizing the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia for their use of the law to stifle free press.
“The criminal libel law is a bad law. It is driving away genuine investment in the media, it is preventing women practitioners from assuming top positions in the media industry for fear of being sent to jail for the slightest mistake, and it hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles,” said Lewis.
Campaigners want to make defamation generally civil with remedies of compensatory damages. For politicians, that doesn’t sound deterrent enough.
However, according to the chairman of the Independent Media Commission (IMC), there is hope in sight.
Between SLAJ, IMC and the Media Reform Coordinating Group, two documents have been produced, the IMC Code of practice (revised), and an amended version of the IMC Act.
IMC Chairman Alieu Kanu said at the Editors’ Guild meeting with the Information ministry that by next year a new law should be in place.
“I am sure by the beginning of the year, 2017, the criminal libel laws of Sierra Leone will be a thing of the past, because we have now worked on documents which include matters to which people were very apprehensive,” he said.
But until such a time, journalists are in dilemma as to how to practice their watchdog role without offending the authorities.
Copyright (C) Politico 2016