By Mohamed Fofanah
FREETOWN, Jul 30 2020 (IPS) – Last week, Sierra Leone’s parliament voted to repeal the country’s 55-year-old libel law, which criminalised the publication of information that was deemed defamatory or seditious, and which had been used by successive governments to target and imprison media practitioners and silence dissenting views. But not everyone is convinced it was in the best interest of media freedom.
On Jul. 23, in a unanimous vote, Sierra Leone’s parliament repealed Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act (POA), which criminalised libel. It was replaced with the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020, which was also approved unanimously.
But critics say the IMC Act 2020 gives the Sierra Leone government the power to shut down media houses and ban journalists from practicing their professions.
Sylvia Blyden, who served as a minister of the main opposition All People’s Congress, and is currently editor of the local newspaper, Awareness Times, told IPS that she was against the repeal of all of the provisions in the POA.
Blyden, a prominent journalist and activist, is presently facing charges brought by the government for defamatory libel, publishing false news and seditious libel — charges that existed under the repealed Part V of the POA.
But Blyden told IPS that there are many protective caveats of that act, which made it not as bad as some people believed it to be. She added that the importance of the criminal libel laws went far beyond the practice of journalism and politics.
“It is sad for poor citizens who cannot afford the money to pay lawyers to institute civil libel litigation to protect their names and good reputations as there is no more punitive deterrent in place.
“I am not speaking of journalists, I am speaking of citizens assaulting other citizen’s reputation. We still have our laws to protect against physical assault on us but we have removed the laws that protect us against assault on our good names. Not much thinking went into this process of repeal,” she argued.
Others have noted that the IMC Act 2020 will serve only to “undermine media pluralism and completely eliminate the registration of newspapers as a ‘Sole Proprietorship’ business, and only provides for registration under the Partnership Act 1890 and the Companies Act 2009”.
Lawrence Williams, writing for the Sierra Leone Telegraph, said, “It’s important to note that many newspapers in Sierra Leone are registered under ‘Sole Proprietorship’ as one among several options provided for under the current IMC Act”.
He said the elimination of newspapers registered under sole proprietorship could lead to the closure of many independent publications, and could therefore “end media scrutiny of government institutions and public officials; and inevitably result to ending governance accountability and transparency in Sierra Leone”.
Amin Kef Sesay, writing in the Calabash Newspaper, said that the IMC Act 2020 would allow the government to “tie the hands of citizens from freely investing in the media and heading those institutions as editors, publishers, etc”.
But Sierra Leone’s information and communication minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray told IPS that the POA had been in violation of 12 international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that government had to comply with international standards.
He said that the IMC Act would enable the mitigation against sedition and libel against private citizens. He added that the Independent Media Commission, the regulatory body of the media, had been given quasi-judicial functions under the IMC Act 2020, and had powers of the high court to hear civil matters of sedition and libel.
• When the act is signed into law, the commission will be able to monitor and regulate the media, its content, ensure that a minimum wage $60 is paid to media practitioners, and to ensure that only qualified and trained media personnel are employed as editors/station managers etc.
Swaray also argued that the IMC Act 2020 was not government exercising further rights over the media. “We discussed the draft bill with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and they all agreed to the contents of the draft which was then sent to parliament so there was endorsement of the contents of the bill by SLAJ,” he said.
Swaray told IPS that government was very concerned about improving the media landscape in this West African nation as the old law meant the country’s brightest and best brains shied away from the profession because they could face criminal charges. “Women also were refusing to practice,” he added.
He is confident that the recent decriminalisation of the libel law will now see more women taking up the profession.
“Now the best minds and women will come on board and we will make the media and journalism a professional, lucrative and serious institution in the country,” Swaray told IPS.
Speaker of parliament Dr. Abass Bundu said at the time that parliament had restored the dignity of the media and he hoped that, going forward, responsible and professional journalism would hold sway.
Hassan Samba Yarjah, a commissioner of the Human Rights Commission in Sierra Leone, told IPS that the commission had called for Part V of the POA to be repealed every year for the last 10 years in its annual ‘State of Human Rights Report in Sierra Leone’.
He said that as a commission they could not emphasise the importance of the passing of the IMC Act 2020. Yarjah told IPS that the press and citizens would now have greater freedom to express their views, speak out, challenge government on issues affecting them, constructively criticise and speak truth to power without being arrested and branded a criminal.
He said that this return of power to the people was a big development for democracy here, adding that this would change the landscape of journalism and develop the media. “The commission will, however, continue to monitor these freedoms and also ensure that the Media and everyone enjoy this freedom with greater responsibility,” Yarjah told IPS.
Both the repeal of the POA and the passing of the IMC Act 2020 have been sent to President Julius Maada Bio for his signature.
By Mohamed Fofanah