Libel, too Close to Repeal

By Abu Bakarr Sulaiman Tarawally

Much has been said about repealing what many local journalists describe as obnoxious, Public Order Act, 1965.  It comes across as obnoxious because, Part five of the Act criminalises free speech.  Media professionals, especially Journalists adjudged the inclusion of Part five, in the very Act, as a specific attack on press freedom. The Criminal and Seditious Libel Law under which journalists, broadcasters, newspaper vendors, or even printers and poets could be imprisoned instead of fined, has been denounced by press freedom campaigners as backward and seeks to muzzle free speech and expression.   

The media’s collective responsibility is to serve as society’s watch dog.  Much as accountability is a core tenet of democracy, a section of society equally fears that much power given to the media and its practitioners would give them the impetus to injure the reputations of well-placed people in society.  The argument has always been, journalists should guide the process and help in crafting better laws that should replace the very Act. The argument has always been a bad law is a bad law- and the wrongs of the past do not make even the today’s laws right by keeping them in the books. The demand here is not to repeal, rather, expunging such laws.   

 The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) prefers the affirmative order “expunge,” which, according to them holds a stronger position statement. Inalienable rights are those accorded human beings by virtue of being born humans, though there are limitations to some rights in laws. This works in tandem with all the Universal declarations and the United Nations’ charters on human and people’s rights and principles. This does not in a way, open a window for media practitioners to be reckless and thrive in their trades to make a world of their own full of mavericks, slanderous people, hate-speech makers, maligning individuals and defaming people.

The fact that the profession had come of age is enough for repressive laws to be repealed. The 1965 Public Order Act prohibits not only the freedom of expression, but civil liberties; freedoms of association and a critical and vibrant press.  This conflicting text zone is what the political class appears to have rallied round with. The truth remains, though that journalism and Journalists are a game’s tool.  In fact, it clearly would appear, the governing definition of the media in Africa generally is the tools’ definition- the politicians use the media to pass their campaign messages; reach out to the mass populace and win the votes. In the end, all manners of persons would express their views, opinions, and comments freely, but the journalists whose freedoms of expression and speeches are prohibited by some laws on criminal libel.

Over a year in office, President Julius Maada Bio’s promise to repeal the 1965 Public Order Act remains a major promise for a free and pluralistic press but gradually getting closer to be repealed. During the month of September, Cabinet approved the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel law, in line with president Bio’s promise, now awaiting the Attorney-General’s office to table it in parliament.  This latest development is of strategic value because, prior to being elected president, Bio’s ‘New Direction’ manifesto saw the media as very vital to governance. 

President Bio told the country’s media body- the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in a May 2018 meeting that, it is a commitment enshrined in his party’s 2018 ‘New Direction’ Manifesto to do away with the law.  For him, the Criminal Libel law criminalises free speech, undermines creativity in arts and stifles the growth of journalism. Hear him: “The media is an important component of society that plays a critical role in the democratic process, especially in deepening transparency and accountability in public institutions,”  and even called for media practitioners to  be given the free space to operate by creating the right environment for private sector investment in the media.

Sierra Leone’s democracy is at the crossroads. The time to pay heed for yesteryears mistakes is now over. The political class should lead the true state of transformation and join trends with the rest of the world in making greater gains. This is where the current administration and particularly the president could make a clear difference by ensuring practical actions towards repeal.

The country’s media regulating body, the Independent Media Commission when effective and truly functional can help in ensuring better regulation and monitoring and also help in supervising the conduct of the media with professional lenses, than criminalising free speech. Other professional bodies like SLAJ and the Guild of Newspaper Editors could also play a vital role in dealing with issues of ethics and moral principles.

Investment in the media is also something that should be looked into. The English Premier League, today, is by far the most publicised league because of the power of the English media and investment in that sector. The economies of advertisement, television rights and image rights contribute hugely to the UK’s economy and all is from the media power business to innovation. The successes of the social media and media technology-based initiatives should be explored and save the day beyond news reporting and political narratives.

It is impressive that former president Koroma and now president Julius Maada Bio have used the right to free press and media pluralism as yardstick when discussing their human right records. This should hold same as the pinnacle to lure investors, especially private sector investment in the media landscape. But we must start with dealing with those existing laws that muzzle free speech.  Indeed, we are closer to repeal, in theory whilst we are now awaiting the practical side of things. The time to act is now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.