SLAJ, Bar Association Join Forces to Fight Common Enemy

Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA).jpg

By Amin Kef Sesay

Speaking as Distinguished Guest Speaker at the 2021 Annual General Meeting of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) President, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, called on the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA) to work concertedly with SLAJ. He noted that SLAJ and the Bar Association have come a long way; as far back as the 70s when SLAJ was founded; a turbulent period for journalists in Sierra Leone.

Nasralla was speaking at the De Wizzard Hall, on 10th February 2022 on the theme: ”The Repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965: What are the safeguards to prevent abuse by Journalists?”

He informed his audience that during those days, when the late female SLAJ President Daisy Bona, published anything controversial or a story the authorities deemed as anti-government, the media house would be stormed by armed SSD paramilitary police. Nasralla added that such violent attacks always resulted in arrests and detention of journalists, who were hurriedly charged to court under trumped-up charges relating to the criminal libel laws.

“Thankfully, the Sierra Leone Bar Association was the only organization to speak for the media, challenge the government and defend journalists on pro bono basis,” the SLAJ President informed his audience.

He added that since then the Bar Association has supported the course of SLAJ in the pursuit of the repeal of the criminal libel law, “a feat we finally achieved in 2020; 50 long years later.”

He reminded his audience that both institutions have crucial roles to play in promoting the Rule of Law and justice, safeguarding Good Governance and protecting fundamental Human Rights like freedom of expression for every citizen, not just journalists.

He maintained that it is essential for effective collaboration and sustained partnership between SLAJ and the Bar Association.

Nasralla used the opportunity to quickly take his audience through the safeguards to prevent abuse by journalists of the new-found freedom necessitated by the repeal of the criminal libel law.

First, he said is The Civil Defamation and Ordinance Law of 1961* which provides for civil libel.

Dilating further, he said “when we were pursuing the repeal of Part V, the main concern always put forward by the authorities, in lcuding the Sierra Leone Parliament and some sections of the public generally, was: what will be the replacement if we take away the criminal libel law? Our answer has been: there is no replacement! And they would look back at us in astonishment.”

He added that “the fact is that, the repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act 1965 did not strike off libel law from our law books. What the repeal did, and that was the reasonable and right thing to do, was to take off the criminal from the libel. Nobody, not only journalists, should be alleged a criminal for expressing and publicizing their opinion on issues or activities of government and public officials.

“So civil libel law is still in our law books and it is one huge safeguard. With the Civil Defamation Law, the offending journalist (or citizen) is required to pay a fine/compensation if found liable in a competent court of law,” he said.

Secondly, he noted that the Independent Media Commission has powers to enforce its provisions in the Media Code of Practice.

“Remember that the IMC was established in 2000 as part of the media’s move towards self-regulation. I will call this external self-regulation. The IMC as a statutory body registers and regulates the media in Sierra Leone. With the repeal of Part V came the passing of the IMC Act 2022 which has strengthened the IMC’s powers of enforcement of the Media Code Practice. Citizens who feel aggrieved by publications or broadcast by the media make a formal complaint to the IMC.

The alleged offending media house will sit before the IMC’s Complaints Committee to defend their publication or broadcast. If at the end of the day the Committee finds them wanting they can be fined, ordered to retract and apologize with equal prominence to the offending publication or broadcast,” the SLAJ President informed his audience.

Speaking on the third safeguard, Nasralla said: “there is the Disciplinary Committee with powers to enforce the SLAJ Code of Ethics. This I will call Internal Self-Regulation by SLAJ. People aggrieved by the publications of journalists can also come to the DC to complain. The DC will investigate the complaints and if the journalist is found wanting, disciplinary action will be taken to serve as a deterrent.”

He went on to explain that the composition of the DC has been strengthened to now include members appointed from the public. The mandate of the DC, he noted has also been reviewed to not only limited to receiving and investigating complaints but to be proactive to prevent complaints, and  accompany the media on its long journey to responsible, ethical and professional practice. Furthermore, the DC is now supported by Regional and District Monitors to reflect the national nature of SLAJ.

The fourth safeguard, he said, is:: Editorial Policy of media houses. Editorial policies, noted guide the direction of the media houses and adherence to quality and professional controls.

He noted another safeguard which is training, adding that continuous training and education of journalists are key to promoting responsible and professional practice.

President Nasralla concluded by saying: “We are two very strong voices, and when we combine these voices and speak out and speak up on issues bordering on the common enemies of bad governance, injustice, lawlessness, corruption, tribalism, divisive politics, etc. the change we seek in our country will be achieved sooner rather than later.”


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