When the law failed journalism

Last week journalists in Sierra Leone held an emergency meeting and declared a news blackout on the judiciary. For one week no radio channel, TV station or newspaper was to publish or air any reports from the courts. This week the boycott was extended, possibly indefinitely. The reason for this frenzy is the Supreme Court’s refusal to pronounce a verdict in the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) case for repeal of a much-despised defamatory and seditious libel law.

Under Part Five of the pre-Independence Public Order Act of 1965, publication found defamatory or seditious is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 1000 leones (roughly 30 cents today). SLAJ is campaigning to expunge the clause that allows journalists to be jailed. 

The lawsuit was filed in February 2008 and the verdict should have been out earlier this month. Among other things SLAJ argued that in the past the libel provision has been used by ruling governments to silence legitimate critics. In 1993 Dr Julius Spencer, now the proprietor of Premier Media, was arrested for writing an article in a Swedish newspaper accusing the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council in the smuggling of diamonds worth $43 million to Belgium. The trial dragged on for two years during which he was imprisoned intermittently. In 2005, Richard Olu Gordon, editor of the satirical publication Peep, was held in connection with an article where he questioned why a certain minister had not been sacked after being indicted by the Anti-Corruption Commission. Paul Kamara, the editor of For Di People, served 14 months in prison between 2004 and 2005. 

I stress ‘legitimate’ as a qualifier for these examples because media houses in Sierra Leone do leave much to be desired when it comes to ethics and objectivity. Newspapers especially are partisan and run as personal megaphones by publishers. Retentionists assert that the law is a necessary deterrent against irresponsible journalism.
Umaru Fofana, president of SLAJ, acknowledges the need for checks. But there are options other than a prison term. ‘The Independent Media Commission is already hearing cases of libel much like a civil court. I think the hefty fines they impose are enough to warn publishers as they risk bankruptcy,’ he says. 

Sierra Leone is a signatory to international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which the law contravenes. But more than that, it’s simply an archaic piece of legislation that really should be revisited. 

On 13 July, members of SLAJ will march through the city in protest. If the Supreme Court is embarrassed, they’re certainly not giving it away by relenting. So this impasse is likely to go on for while. The Public Order Act has been disputed before but this time it’s clear that the journalists mean business. 

In the West African region Ghana has discarded its criminal libel laws but Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania continue to enforce theirs. Journalists in Freetown joke that the Pademba Road prison once used to be second home to reporters. But if you think about it, that’s really quite sad.

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