Mr. Speaker Sir… When did holding and sharing opinion become a crime in Sierra Leone?

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    By Amin Kef Sesay

    The jury is still out on the controversial issue of why the Sierra Leone Parliament decided to suspend Hon. Hindolo Gevao for airing his opinion over the BBC World Service that Parliament is corrupt. It has made many constitutionalists ask when holding and sharing opinion became a crime in Sierra Leone.

    In the European Union which is held up as one of the bastions of democracy in the free world, the Union’s Human Rights Act allows Freedom of expression. Article 10 of it protects one’s right to hold one’s own opinions and to express them freely without Government interference.

    This includes the right to express views aloud (for example through public protest and demonstrations) or through: Published articles, books or leaflets, Television or radio broadcasting. Works of art,the internet and social media

    The law also protects one’s freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine.

    Are there any restrictions to this right?

    Although you have freedom of expression, you also have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect other people’s rights.

    Public authorities may restrict this right if they can show that their action is lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to:

    Protect national security, territorial integrity (the borders of the state) or public safety, prevent disorder or crime, protect health or morals, protect the rights and reputations of other people, prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence and maintain the authority and impartiality of judges

    An authority may be allowed to restrict one’s freedom of expression if, for example, one expresses views that encourage racial or religious hatred.

    However, the relevant public authority must show that the restriction is ‘proportionate’, in other words that it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the issue concerned.

    This right is particularly important for journalists and other people working in the media.

    They must be free to criticize the Government and our public institutions without fear of prosecution – this is a vital feature of a democratic society.

    But that doesn’t prevent the State from imposing restrictions on the media in order to protect other human rights, such as a persons’ rights to respect for their private lives.

    What the law says – Article 10 of the Human Rights Act: Freedom of expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

    The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

    Example case – Observer and The Guardian v United Kingdom [1991]

    The Guardian and The Observer newspapers published excerpts from Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, which included allegations that MI5 had acted unlawfully.

    The government obtained a court order preventing the newspapers from printing further material until proceedings relating to a breach of confidence had finished. But when the book was published, The Guardian complained that the continuation of the court order infringed the right to freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights said that the court order was lawful because it was in the interests of national security.

    However, it also said that that wasn’t enough reason to continue the newspaper publication ban once the book had been published, because the information was no longer confidential anyway. This case summary is taken from ‘Human rights, human lives: a guide to the Human Rights Act for public authorities’.

    Meanwhile, Hon. Gevao has called on the nation not to stand by and see him punished by parliament for folding and sharing his opinion.

     

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