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Press Freedom Day…

SLAJ urges SLPP Gov’t to repeal criminal libel law

Winifred Hannah Koroma

May 4, 2018

SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis

President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Kelvin Lewis, has called on President Julius Maada Bio and his Sierra Leone Peoples Party-led government to repeal the obnoxious Part Five of the 1965 Public Order Act of 1965 that has been used to jail journalists.

Speaking on World Press Freedom Day, Thursday, 3 May, Lewis said: “Lastly, for ten years we were promised the repeal of the criminal libel laws. We are mindful that it is again a commitment in the SLPP manifesto. We look forward to having a constructive dialogue to see how this can be achieved in the shortest possible time.”

In 2008, SLAJ filed a suit against the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and the Minister of Information at the Supreme Court for the interpretation of Section 26, 27 and 32-36 of the 1965 Public Order Act), which the association believes are inconsistent with Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution that  guarantees press freedom and freedom of expression. But the apex court dismissed the case.

Whilst addressing colleague journalists Thursday and members of the public at SLAJ headquarters to mark the 26th celebration of World Press Freedom Day on the theme “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law”, Lewis noted that journalists observe the day to remind the world about the benefits of a free press to society and also look back at the challenges to a free press and freedom of expression in their various countries and how those challenges can be overcome.

Lewis said the true media role should be not to take sides but to be able to report objectively without fear or favour and speak truth to power.

Speaking on the current political trend, the SLAJ president hit at SLPP supporters that have allowed their emotions to take the better part of them and “have rushed into seizing control of state power in a bravado style marching like Roman conquerors with their horses strutting impatiently.”

He said that the ugly incident of chasing a Police Chief out of town because of seeming unprofessional policing, stopping judges and evicting them from state vehicles and visiting homes at night with armed security personnel searching for state property were actions that have created fear and unease.

Speaking on the recent brouhaha in parliament, Lewis recalled that in ‘the 1970’s the then President Siaka Stevens arrested members of the SLPP, who had won seats in parliament and kept them locked up until they constitutionally lost their seats through being absent, all in a bid to gain a controlling majority in parliament.’

He also recalled that similar incident happened in 2012 under Ernest Bai Koroma when two members of the SLPP lost their seats through the courts, thereby gifting the ruling APC a two-third majority.

He opined that the wave of injunctions against elected APC members could only be an act of juggling for control of the parliament, adding that the SLPP is seen to be riding roughshod over the laws and procedures, much like the APC did during their ten year era.

“We call on the leadership of the SLPP to rein in its supporters. It was Mitchel Obama who said ‘when they go low, we go high.’ I would urge the SLPP to take the moral high ground and respect the law, in a fair manner,” Lewis said.

However, Lewis described as ‘most unacceptable and disgraceful’ for men and women who will soon take the title of ‘Honourable’ to sweep to the floor documents on the table of parliament, including the most sacred documents – the constitution, Bible and Koran – and went  on to step on them like little children.

“We commend the vast majority who walked out in protest as is the norm in parliament, but we totally condemn the small number whose act of desecration will be kept in our phones, on our laptop computers and in the archives of our television stations, to remind us years down the road of a truly red letter day in our House of Parliament when we saw police forcefully evicting honourable men and women. What a shame!” he said.

He noted that the behaviour of the Judiciary was a cause for concern as, according to him, public perception of the way justice is being dispensed was not good for the peace of the country.

“These days the Judiciary has developed some wonderful ‘Maradona’ like dribbling skills that one can never predict when the next bombshell will be delivered. However, we believe that the Judiciary has been handed a golden opportunity to redeem its image, and this they must do with utmost sincerity, honesty and integrity,” he said.

The SLAJ President also called on the APC to condemn the beating of journalists Ibrahim Samura of New Age Newspaper, Patrick Jaiah Kamara of Concord Times Newspaper and Thomas Dickson of Salone Times Newspaper by APC members.

He further called on President Maada Bio to ensure that impunity for such crimes was not encouraged, noting that the journalists’ body was disappointed that the Sierra Leone Police are dragging their feet in bringing the APC culprits to book.

“When under the APC rule complaints were made against journalists by APC officials and this same police were always very quick to arrest and detain and punish journalists. Now when journalists are beaten up, the Police are dragging their feet in bringing the perpetrators to book. The law should be made to apply to everyone and the Police must stop being selective in applying justice,” Lewis said.

Lewis called on erstwhile President Koroma to declare his assets to the Anti-Corruption Commission as he did when he took office in 2007, adding that President Bio should to do same, and that it was their wish that those declarations are made public in the interest of transparency and accountability.

The SLAJ President said that recent events in parliament have shown that there were very big loopholes in the 1991 constitution which need to be addressed.

He thus called on the Bio government to re-visit the original copy of the Justice Cowan Constitutional Review Report.

“Our view is that we go back to the very first report before the report in which some people signed and later said they did not sign. That is the original people’s document and not the final report of the government white paper, which does not represent the people’s voice,” he said.

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