September 28, 2016 By Abu-bakarr Sheriff
Speaking at a national symposium to repeal Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965, which criminalises libel, President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) Kevin Lewis yesterday themed his speech ‘criminal libel laws do not respect truth’ as he urged for them to be expunged from the law books.
The law, which journalists and rights campaigners have unflatteringly referred to as obnoxious and stifling free speech, was promulgated some fifty-one years ago ostensibly to suppress free speech and clamp down on perceived dissent.
Lewis noted that the laws do not only inhibit journalists but also hinder free speech, as it could lead to the arrest of members of the public for the so-called “careless talk” against politicians or other public officials.
However, journalists have often borne the brunt of the law, beginning with its first victim, Sam Leigh, as successive governments have used it to intimidate journalists.
Lewis was speaking at the Miatta Conference Hall in Freetown as efforts to repeal the law – a key election promise by President Ernest Bai Koroma in 2007 – gathers momentum.
The speakers, discussants and audience include journalists, politicians, activists, lawyers, security agents and members of the diplomatic corp.
He posited that “Our fundamental problem with the Criminal Libel laws is that truth is not a defence. We accept that there must be punishment if you tell a lie, but should we be punished again for telling the truth? That is unacceptable and that is why the criminal libel laws must be abolished. It is bad law.”
Quoting from the bible, he lamented that the laws do not regard truth as a justifiable defence, thus negating the very Christian values they were taught as kids and the country’s motto ‘Unity, Freedom and Justice’, plus the third stanza of the National Anthem, which extols the virtues of “knowledge and truth” that our forefathers spread.
“That is why I have said ‘Any law that does not consider truth as a defence is a bad law” and the Criminal Libel law is a bad law. It must be repealed,” he said.
He underscored that while SLAJ was not against punishing some errant journalists, it loathes the fact that anyone could be punished for speaking truth. Also, he said tremendous efforts have been made over the years to rein-in journalists who flout ethical rules, including by means of the Independent Media Commission Code of Practice and the SLAJ Code of Ethics for journalists.
The two day symposium was chaired by Dr. Julius Spencer, himself a victim of the draconian libel laws. He urged participants to dedicate their time to the task of changing the law that would ensure a professional and responsible media.
Statements were made by representatives of the Irish Embassy and British High Commission, who both sponsored the event.
John Callahan from the Irish Embassy noted that the symposium would set the roadmap to creating an enabling environment for free speech, while Annup Vyas, from the British High Commission, stated that each time the law is used, it muddles the country’s reputation as a democratic nation.
Also, Vice President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Mohamed Lamin Turay, said “reform is due, and the urgency to repeal is now” as he voiced the association’s support for a repeal of a law he noted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report referred to as a cog in our democratic wheel.
IMC Commissioner Francis Sowa called for a repeal of the law, in line with international best practices, revealing that the Draft IMC Bill and Code of Practice 2016 would curb the mischief of defamation, character assassination and other unethical practices.
Meanwhile, in his keynote address, Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Bangura, described Sierra Leone’s libel laws as “bad law” and promised they would be replaced with a “good law”, thus underlining the government’s commitment to repeal that particular part of the Public Order Act.
“The law is not only bad, but it has been misused,” Bangura said.