Repeal Of Criminal Libel Is Not The Issue…   Giving IMC Excessive Regulation Powers Is The Issue

328

By Amin Kef Sesay

With the Independent Media Commission Bill now at the Legislative stage for Members of Parliament to make necessary adjustments, taking into cognizance the objections made by SLAJ and other stakeholders and interest groups, it is only expected that common sense will prevail.

That said, repeal of criminal libel from the law books of Sierra Leone is a wholesome welcome development on the country’s media landscape and with the full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, would make public office holders accountable to the people they are supposed to work for, through media scrutiny.

The Bill that was enacted into the criminal libel law that Parliament is now in the process of rescinding, was introduced in Parliament in 1965 by Sir Albert Margai, the second Prime Minister of Sierra Leone.  He faced serious opposition from within and without his party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

However, he influenced Parliament to enact a law that would serve as a sledge hammer to silence his critics and members of the opposition, despite the serious opposition.

When the APC took power in 1968, it was expected that it would decriminalize libel. However, the APC retained the law it had strongly opposed in its entirety. Furthermore, this has been the case of successive Governments over the years, despite the fact that the said law negates Sec 25 of the 1991 Constitution and contravenes the right to Freedom of Speech.

Additionally, succeeding Governments have been using it to silence the opposition in the name of maintaining law and order and/or preventing threat to public safety and security.

There are two types of libel under the Public Order Act of 1965 of Sierra Leone; Defamatory Libel and Seditious Libel.

Defamatory libel is basically the publication of a statement in a static form against a person, which is likely to expose the individual to public hatred, contempt or ridicule or to damage him in his trade, business, profession, calling or office. The most common form is written and printed words contained in newspapers, books, magazines etc. It can also be in a recorded form such as film, speech or effigy.

Seditious libel is defined as any attempt made by individual(s) in meetings, speeches or by publications to disturb the tranquility of the State by way of bringing hatred, contempt, or excite disaffection against the Government or public authority.

This means that a statement can only be deemed seditious libel when the complainant is disparaged in the estimation of right thinking members in the society and not merely in the minds of a particular section of the public.

The distinction between Defamatory and Seditious Libel (inter alia) is that, whilst defamation may be against ordinary citizens, Sedition is said to be committed against public authority.

Standard of Proof

A libelous statement must contain three elements before they are considered actionable.

Firstly, it must be proven that the statement is false and defamatory. Secondly, the statement must refer to a particular person, even if it is an innuendo and thirdly, the statement must be published to at least one person, excluding the plaintiff.

That said, the burden of proof rests solely on the Prosecution. In addition, to prove Seditious Libel, the Prosecution must prove a seditious intention in the published material.

The interpretation text (Sec 37 of the Public Order Act) defines seditious intention as an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against a public authority.

Furthermore, the Prosecution also needs to establish how much public disaffection or chaos the publication is likely to cause.

This simply means that, no matter how much truth there is in the published material, it will not be considered as a defence for the accused.

To this end, and given the circumstances under which the law was promulgated, one can only conclude that the primary purpose of the law is to provide undue shield for public officials from public scrutiny.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here