Practicing journalists and media houses in Sierra Leone have had to over the years greatly restrain themselves in investigating and reporting on the ills of society – especially when the investigation and reporting have to do with politicians and government officials.
Over the years, whilst the government has introduced legislations to unshackle journalists such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Criminal and Seditious law contained in the 1965 Public Order Act has been a thorn in the flesh of the profession. It was passed into law when Sir Albert Margai was Prime Minister and the rationale was to muzzle journalists when he sought to have a One-Party Bill passed into law by a then SLPP-dominated parliament.
In the long struggle to have the legislation expunged, the former President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, BBC stringer Umaru Fofanah together with his executive at the time fought tooth and nail to have the former government of Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma expunge this odious piece of legislation that ties the hands of journalists from freely expressing their thoughts and opinions but to no avail.
His successor, Kelvin Lewis, too has been fighting valiantly to have the law exorcised from the books and was able to win assurance from the current President who had disclosed during his campaign in the March 2018 elections that if he won the election his government will expunge the criminal and seditious libel laws from the laws of Sierra Leone.
These assurances have further been strengthened by the Minister of Information and Communication, Mohamed Rahman Swaray, who has severally assured the media in several engagements that the government will make good on its promise before the next United Nations General Assembly in New York later in September 2019. Media practitioners are anxiously waiting to see this become a reality.
While we wait for the repeal of the part 5 of the seditious libel law, the practice of journalism in Sierra Leone continues to be bedeviled by threats and court actions. Journalists are increasingly been treated as criminals by the courts for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
It is under this draconian law that the proprietor and publisher of Calabash Newspaper, Amin Kef Sesay aka Ranger will today make an appearance at the Magistrate court in Freetown on a criminal summon of libel against a Member of Parliament filed by lawyers representing him. The MP has filed a lawsuit pertaining to the content of a press release by a citizen against the MP.
The Government of Sierra Leone had established an Independent Media Commission to serve as first port of call in all matters having to do with dispute between the media and the public.
Many people see this first test of the liberty of journalists to report on a matter of public interest without fear of recrimination as a dangerous first step towards repression of press freedom and muzzling of journalists by the Bio government. The MP in question represents the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party in parliament.