By Thomas Vandi Gbow
When Parliament on Thursday 16th July, 2020 fully debated and submitted the Bills titled: “The Public Order Amendment Act 2020 and the Independent Media Commission Act 2020,” to the Legislative Committee for further scrutiny, an APC Member of Parliament, Hon. Abdul Karim Kamara in the debate made a contribution I liked most. While arguing that the law that criminalizes seditious libel should not be part of democratic governance in the country, he stressed that “posterity would judge those who enacted the Criminal Libel Law….”
Verily, posterity would only remember those who enacted the Criminal Libel Law in 1965 as bad leaders that would not brook any political opponent opposing them. Historically, the law was enacted during the reign of Prime Minister Sir Albert Margai, who was also Leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), to deal with media houses that were vehemently opposed to his Government and party. The then opposition All People’s Congress (APC) mouthpiece – We Yone – was the most vociferous critic of Sir Albert Margai’s regime and the latter consequently reacted by enacting the law to muzzle the press.
From that dark period to the time of sending the Bill to the Legislative Committee for scrutiny, every succeeding Government had used the obnoxious law to muzzle the press with apparent impunity. Like my senior colleague, Hon. Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, rightly said in his contribution in Parliament, the 1965 Public Order Act is evident of sending prominent people to jail, including Ibrahim Bash Taqi of We Yone fame, Pius Foray of The Tablet, Kawuigoko Roy Stevens, Lans Fofanah, Paul Kamara and Jonathan Leigh, amongst many others.
Since the new political dispensation ushered in democratic governance in Sierra Leone in 1996, almost all former presidential candidates had promised to expunge the Criminal Libel Law from our law books. Erstwhile President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, for example, promised in his 2005 New Year’s message, which copy I still have in my archive, that he would expunge Criminal Libel Law from our law books if elected as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone.
I published his message as a news story in The African Champion, which I served as Editor and at the same time Personal Assistant to the fallen hero, Foday Abdul Raman Kaloko, who was Deputy Mayor of the Freetown City Council (FCC) and National Organizing Secretary to the All People’s Congress (APC) that was in opposition, just as it is now.
Former President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma acceded to power on Monday 17th September, 2007 and relinquished it on 4th April, 2018 without fulfilling the promise of expunging the Criminal Libel Law from our law books. Under his regime, the former Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) Umaru Fofana courageously challenged the Criminal Libel Law in the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone but the matter was hastily thrown out of court. He even vowed that he would continue to grow his beard until the Criminal Libel Law was expunged from our law books. How I wish Umaru Fofana had kept to his vow to see the obnoxious law being expunged from our law books.
If truth must be told, then Brig. (Rtd) Julius Maada Bio is the only presidential candidate in Sierra Leone who is about to fulfill his manifesto promise to repeal the Criminal Libel Law. During the debate and submission of the Bill to the Legislative Committee, every Member of Parliament that contributed to the debate commended President Dr. Julius Maada Bio and his Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swaray for such epoch-making efforts that would enhance media development in the country and protect the hard-earned reputation of citizens many of whom had been victims of character assassination or false publications in the media, particularly in the press.
Whilst the last Thursday debate on the Bill entitled: “Public Order Amendment Act 2020” was more or less in favour of repealing the Criminal Libel Law, it is hoped that the Legislative Committee that is currently scrutinizing the Bill will do its work in the interest of the public so that at the end of the day, everyone would appreciate the final Act, including the media and the general citizenry.
However, we as media practitioners should always bear in mind that repealing the Criminal Libel Law does not mean that Freedom of Expression and of the Press is absolute; there are still limitations to it. It’s even a scary moment when a Criminal Libel Law becomes a Civil Law that deals with the rights of private citizens rather than with crime. So our best bet is to strictly adhere to the ethics of the profession by crosschecking our facts before going to press; otherwise, some media houses would either be paying hundreds of millions of Leones in damages for causing harm or injury to private citizens or shutting down completely.