The Libel Law, Press Freedom and its Limits


By Amin Kef Sesay

No doubt, we all agree that Press Freedom is an indispensable element of democracy. The vigilant and dauntless media, endowed with investigative abilities is a requisite in modern democracy.

Yet the media today is faced with legal obstacles strewn across its way which restrict its roles in a democracy. The demands of the State and individual interests have meant that ideal laws are those which strike a balance of rights.

We journalists must always be mindful that there are always two sides of a coin – meaning that even when Government repeals the Criminal Libel law, there are laws that limit press freedom in the interests of the State and individual rights.

Liability for Libel

Generally, under many jurisdictions in the world, any person who shall publish, exhibit or cause the publication or exhibition of any defamation in writing or by similar means, shall be responsible for libel. This includes the author, the editor of the book, pamphlet, newspaper, etc. and the proprietors of the publication. The printer (ex. printing press) is also liable. Reference Paul Kamara Vs Justice Tolla Thompson…

Penalties for Libel

The law can jail and fine for libel. This is in addition to the civil action which may be brought by the offended party.

Why is it punishable?

The enjoyment of a private reputation is as much a constitutional right as the possession of life, liberty and property. The law recognizes the value of such reputation and imposes upon him who attacks it, by slanderous words or libellous publication, the liability to make full compensation for damages done.

Court that has Jurisdiction for Libel

Venue for Action may vary, but the general rule is that the Trial Court where the libellous publication was published or where the complainant resides should be the court designated to try the case. The crime of libel prescribes in one year from the date the alleged libellous article was published.

Damages Recoverable in an Action for Libel

The law provides that moral damages may be recovered in case of libel, slander or any other form of defamation. In effect, the offended party in these cases is given the right to receive from the guilty party moral damages for injury to his feelings and reputation in addition to punitive or exemplary damages.

The civil action for damages shall be filed at the same court where the libel case was filed. The court it was filed at acquires exclusive jurisdiction to entertain the corresponding complaint for libel.

Persons Who Can File a Complaint for Libel

A libel suit can only be filed by the offended party. Libel cases attributing a defect or vice, real or imaginary, which does not constitute a crime but brings into disrepute, scorn or ridicule or tends to cause dishonour, discredit, or contempt, can be prosecuted de officio. The complaint of the offended party is not necessary, and the information filed by the prosecuting officer is enough to confer jurisdiction upon the court to try the defendant charged. If the libel concerns a person who has already passed away, his heirs or legal representatives have the right to file the complaint.

Essential Elements of Libel

  1. The imputation must be made public;
  2. b) The imputation must be malicious;
  3. c) The imputation must be defamatory;
  4. d) The person defamed must be identifiable.

Defamatory Imputation

  1. Crime allegedly committed by the offended party;
  2. b) Vice or defect, real or imaginary, of the offended party; or
  3. c) Any act, omission, condition, status of, or circumstance relating to the offended party which tend to cause the dishonour, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.


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