June 10, 2015 By Patrick Jaiah Kamara & Hawa Amara
The High Court of Sierra Leone last Friday (5th June) ordered the Independent Media Commission (IMC) to review the fines earlier levied on the Editor of the Independent Observer newspaper, Jonathan Leigh, for contravening the IMC Media Code of Practice.
Mr. Leigh was fined in excess of Le16.5 million by the media regulatory body in February this year after a publication in his newspaper alleged that Sylvia Blyden (owner of Awareness Times newspaper) had confessed to have had sex with one Rev. Wilfred Kabs-Kanu three times.
The individuals he mentioned in the story filed a complaint to the IMC Complaint Committee, thus leading to the unprecedented fines by the commission.
High Court judge Allan B. Halloway said the fines imposed by the IMC on the journalist and his newspaper have the tendency to undermine media freedom and prevent not only the applicant but other media institutions and persons engaged in mass media services from performing their important role in society.
“This court holds the view that the quantum of fines imposed on the applicant for the breaches of the Media Code of Practice, penalty for which no specific fine was provided for, amounts to conduct which tends to undermine and or prevent not only the applicant but also mass media institutions and persons engaged in the provision of mass media services in Sierra Leone generally from performance of the very important role they have to play in the society as a whole,” ruled Justice Halloway. “This court also holds the view that such conduct tends to erode the confidence which not only the applicant but also the mass media institutions should have in the respondent as an institution, given such a huge task and powers to perform its functions.”
Leigh had filed an originating notice of motion dated 4th March 2015 for an order declaring the ruling of the Complaint Committee of the IMC as illegal and unlawful on the grounds that the procedures followed in reaching the said ruling were in contravention of certain provisions of the IMC Act of 2000, and that they violated the principles of natural justice.
He also contended that the fines imposed on him were excessive and exceeded what is prescribed in the IMC Act and the Media Code of Practice.
The matter before the court was to determine whether or not the Complaint Committee of the IMC contravened the provisions of Section 36 of the Media Regulatory Act of 2000 after the media regulatory body had received a complaint from its Research and Monitoring Unit, as well as from Sylvia Blyden and Reverend Kabs-Kanu regarding the said publication.
The judge stated that the respondent (IMC) cannot rely on Section 36(3) of its Act and Principle 31 of the Media Code of Practice, thus the absence of any other law which the respondent could have relied on to impose the said fines on the applicant for breaches of the Code, which he said has no specific prescriptions.
He said the respondent should be guided by its good sense of judgment and fair play not only in the instant case but also for all media institutions that may fall out with the law, so that its conduct is not interpreted as a witch-hunt.
Justice Halloway further noted that in the said situation, the paramount consideration should be how a blanket provision as in Section 36(3) of the IMC Act should be arrived at.
“A blanket provision made in the circumstances would certainly stipulate a penalty not exceeding the threshold for the most serious offence determined. The blanket penalty should have been Le1 million for each breach,” he said.
“The court holds the view that a blanket penalty of Le5 million should be levied. The fine imposed on the applicant by the respondent for the breach of the Media Code of Practice for which no specific penalty was prescribed was excessive, extensively disproportionate and has no legal framework that governs the respondent.”