By Allieu Sahid Tunkara
Part-V of the Public Order Act (POA), 1965 criminalises defamatory and seditious libel thus putting media practitioners at the mercy of the court.
Defamation hinges on publications that smear the reputation of an individual while sedition is about negative portrayals of the image of Sierra Leone abroad.
The offences are criminal, according to POA, with either custodial or pecuniary punishment or both.
The law in question was promulgated four years when Sierra Leone attained independence from the then Great Britain. Sierra Leone, at that time, had not enjoyed the status of a sovereign state as the UK Queen was still represented by the Governor-General who served as head of state assisted with a Prime Minister. The former is the ceremonial head of state while the latter is the head of government.
The country’s political structure at the time is a replica of the British parliamentary system of government.
The draconian nature of the law is a reflection of the period in which the law was passed as it was intended to protect those at the centre of state command. The notion that the press takes on the form and coloration of the political order in which it operates is lent credence here.
It is an incontrovertible claim that when Sierrra Leone achieved independence in 1961, the POA was still maintained.
It persisted to the period Sierra Leone attained republicanism in 1971 with Siaka Stevens as the first Executive President.
Time flew and several governments have come and gone with promises of repealing the law in question with the hope of creating the serene environment for media practice. But, the promises remain unfulfilled as the crime of libel law is still criminalised.
The criminalisation of the law means media practitioners in conflict with defamation and sedition laws are treated as suspected criminals upon arrest and criminals upon conviction.
It is the court that interpret the laws and show the degree of culpability of the journalist.
The existence of part-V of the POA has generated heated discussions and debates compelling calls on the government to embark on measures to expunge the section.
Many discussants and debaters particularly media practitioners have called the law, ‘a bad law’ but a ‘bad law’ is a law until repealed.
The then government of President Koroma promised to repeal the law, but the promise did not come to pass as the criminal libel law still exists to date.
Repeated calls have been made by successive presidents of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), an interest-based organisation that caters for the interest of media practitioners in Sierra Leone.
The positions taken by the organisation’s former presidents are not too different. They have continuously drawn the attention of governments to the repeal of the law which many see as an obstacle to safe media practice.
Cognisant of the snail-pace moves by successive governments to repeal the law, media practitioners have opted for the Independent Media Commission (IMC) to be viewed as a ‘Court of First Instance’ meaning any breach of media laws must be taken to the IMC for arbitration.
In an event of non-compliance by a media institution or practitioner, the matter can be referred to court for adjudication.
However, the current government reinforced the repeal promise of previous governments to ensure a safe media environment. The government is believed to be making impressive inroads in the actualisation of the promise it has made. In a recent cabinet meeting, the president and his ministers signed the repeal document of the POA which they taken to parliament for approval.
But, parliament does not seem to agree with the cabinet as debates around the repeal bill has not commenced.
It is clear that parliament is apprehensive of the passage of the repeal bill into law. However, The document has been sent to the IMC to make their inputs particularly the fine to be meted to media institutions and practitioners in an event of breach.
Why The Repeal Effort Must be Expedited
Several moves to repeal the libel law have been made, but the effort is hardly felt. The slow move have created the biggest doubts in the minds of media practitioners about whether the repeal campaign would be a reality.
However, Sierra Leone is among free nations that have signed and ratified declarations, treaties and conventions that uphold freedom of expression and of the press.
Notable among international documents to which Sierra Leone is a signatory is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Article 19 of the Declaration upholds the right to freedom of expression and of the press. Similarly, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 also recognises the right to freedom of expression and of the press. Also, the African Charter on Human and People’s Right, 1981 also guarantees the right to Freedom and expression and of the press.
It is no doubt that Sierra Leone has signed and ratified the documents to match with its democratic credentials for which the country is well known.
Locally, Sierra Leone prides itself with a liberal constitution that sanctifies basic human rights and the freedoms of the individuals. The rights are contained in chapters 2 & 3 of Sierra Leone’s supreme law being the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No. 6 of 1991.
Section 11 of the constitution says: The media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this constitution and to highlight the responsibility and accountability of government to the people.
To ensure that the media perform this role effectively and efficiently, section 25 (1) of the same constitution is entrenched by the framers of the constitution.
The provision allowed any citizen to own, operate and establish any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without hindrance.
The medium could be owned by any citizen regardless of academic qualifications and social status. The only criteria, among others, for the registration of a media institution is the submission of business and strategic plans especially for commercial media institutions.
The clause is one of the finest provisions of press freedom for contemporary societies.
However, the inclusion of sub-section 2 to section 25 of the same constitution justify the promulgation of laws, rules and codes of ethics for the regulation of media in the interest of defence, public safety and morality and for the protection of the reputations and privacies of other members of society.
The obligation of media regulation bestowed on the state by law goes a long way to justify the existence of the Part-V of POA and the subsequent legislations to add weight to the existing law.
The POA, the IMC media Code of Practice, 2007 and the SLAJ Code of Ethics are products of the Section 25(2) of the constitution.
However, many Sierra Leoneans especially media practitioners have argued that the existence of Part-V of the POA is a “great impediment” to media practice.
Their view is divorced from the treatment of Journalists as suspected criminals upon arrest and criminals upon conviction.
This piece calls on the relevant authorities to live up to the promise of the Part-V repeal so that the government could be held to higher moral heights.
By Allieu Sahid Tunkara