Thomas Moore Conteh, Freedom of Expression and Democracy

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Executive Director Citizen's Advocacy Network Thomas Moore Conteh

By Amin Kef Sesay

One of Sierra Leone’s vibrant Civil Society activist, Thomas Moore Conteh, who arrested on the 5th March 2020 by the Police during a peaceful protest by some disenchanted students of the Limkokwing students who were demanding that the Government should a decision taken not to continue paying their fees was granted a Le150, 000.000 bail by the Magistrate presiding over a jam-packed Magistrate Court in Freetown on Friday 6th March 2020. He is expected to make his next appearance on the 12th March 2020.

Rashid Dumbuya Esq ,the lead Counsel of over fifty legal representatives  who came forward in court to defend Thomas Moore had this to say: “In my almost 10 years of practise as a human rights lawyer defending accused persons in court, I have never felt so timid but for this case. The passion and emotions that was bubbling from within was just uncontrollable. But thank God for divine wisdom and for showing Himself strong on our behalf.”

Indeed, the unity of the legal team and the support from civil society organisations and Linkokwing University students were indeed exemplary.

According to Lawyer Rashid, “while we keep celebrating the release of Thomas Moore Conteh, let us also remember that the issue of Limkokwing University has still not been resolved. We must therefore continue with our constructive engagements with the State so that the Limkokwing University saga will be resolved amicably and in a way that will ultimately guarantee the right to Education of the affected students who have been out of classes for about six months now.”

He noted that we must never allow His Excellency’s free quality education programme, which is a priority under the New Direction manifesto, to be undermined.

He maintained that ours is a democracy and not an autocratic system of Government, hence, the need for absolute respect for fundamental human rights as enshrined in national and international law.

The lead Counsel laid emphasis on this, “Education is an empowerment right and any attempt by the State to deprive an individual of that right is an attempt to render that individual as menace to the society.”

He admonished all to desist from commenting on the case before the court since the matter is now sub- judice.

It must be noted that a fundamental characteristic of modern democratic States is the existence of the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by the public authority.

The 1991 Constitution provides that everyone has the right to freedom of expression. As such, the approach of the Court is to give the term its literal and linguistic meaning as it applies to natural and legal persons.

The right, under the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to be interpreted by the Court as being available to a range of natural persons including journalists in Goodwin v United Kingdom (1996), civil servants in Vogt v Germany (1995), serving members of the military in Engel v Netherlands (1976).

It has also been found to apply to publishers in Unabhangige Initiative Informations Viefalt v Austria (2003) and to newspapers in Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979).

The right to freedom of expression is not only a primary cornerstone of democracy but also prerequisite for the enjoyment of many of the other rights and freedoms ensured in the AU and ECOWAS Convention on Human Rights. However, freedom of expression is subject to certain restrictions that are ‘in accordance with law’ and necessary ‘in a democratic society’.

Generally, the right to freedom of expression includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas. It constitutes one of the essential foundations of a society and therefore the right is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.

Any consideration of freedom of expression must therefore recognize not just the underlying principles behind freedom of expression but also the interrelationship between freedom of expression and democracy.

As a general point therefore, when assessing freedom of expression, consideration should be given to the relationship between it and another fundamental constitutional right – the right to freedom of association. However, under Sierra Leone law, the Public Order Act 1965 allows the State to impose limitations on these rights.

Under the law, an interference with freedom of speech and association must satisfy the following criteria: It must be prescribed by law, it must be necessary in a democratic society; should pursue a legitimate aim, any measures taken must be proportionate to the aim being pursued

When all is said and done, in a democracy, the primary obligation of the State is to refrain from unlawful interferences with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

The mechanisms of the State, must avoid any legislative, judicial or administrative interference with the rights to freedom of expression and association. As a general rule all restrictions on freedom of expression are to be discouraged.

This further implies that the State is to take positive measures to promote the right to freedom of expression and association.

 

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