By Amin Kef Sesay
It has been a long and tortuous journey over the years since media practitioners have been clamouring for Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act which criminalizes libel to be repealed. Past Executive bodies of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) have taken bold steps in that direction but either serious efforts were not put to make it happen or the then Governments in power were not really ready for such to transpire.
With the ascendancy to the presidency, His Excellency the President Julius Maada Bio and his Government have so far demonstrated genuine commitment to ensure that the repeal process goes on unfettered until ultimately the obnoxious aspect, Part V, is finally expunged.
Fruitful engagements have taken place between the Government ,on the one hand and media practitioners on the other hand all geared towards coming up with good initiatives that would fit in after slashing off of the so-called obnoxious aspect which has been deemed inimical to Press Freedom.
It must be noted that the Public Order Act of 1965 in Sierra Leone is an Act to consolidate and amend the laws relating to public order. Part V of the act deals with laws relating to Defamatory and Seditions Libel. This particular law in Sierra Leone criminalises the offence of defamation, and has thus prompted various media activists to criticize its existence.
Under this law journalists have suffered incarceration for alleged libellous violations said to infringe on the fundamental liberty of innocent people. As time went by, the hue and cry by the Fourth Estate became louder and deafening.
Optimism became hyper high when during the Presidential cocktail while President Bio was romancing with the media he again registered his Government’s determination to ensure that the process is completed.
Many journalists breathe a sigh of relief when it was understood that the repeal process has reached Cabinet level where it was discussed lengthily and as per protocol sent to Parliament to be debated and after probable amendments could have been made, send it to the President for his assent before it becomes law. According to the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swaray, Parliament has graciously offered an avenue for him in collaboration with the media to make a presentation to the Committee of the whole House in a bid to convince them to fast-track the repeal process.
Somehow, journalists were a bit disappointed when Parliamentarians failed to deliberate the said repeal as scheduled on the 17th December 2019 but postponed the deliberation to the 18th December 2019. The anxiety among journalists is understandable in the light of the fact that for too long they have been yearning for the day when their dream will become true.
Many say, in modern democratic societies, remedies for defamation are civil and not criminal. Hence, making defamation a criminal offence becomes a violation of Section 25 (1) of Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, which reference specifically the fundamental human right to freedom of Expression.
In other words, instead of criminalising libel, after the repeal, civil adjudication of libel-related matters will take precedence and the truth will once more become a defence. Put in other words, there will be no vacuum in the absence of Part V and journalists will not just go about freely to say libellous things against innocent persons as there will be a law in place to safeguard liberties.
Media practitioners are expecting that since President Bio and Cabinet are in favour of the repeal, as law makers, Parliamentarians will fine tune it and give it the maximum support it deserves before it reaches the President’s desk.
For now it is repeal all the way as we say goodbye to 2019 and ready to say welcome to 2020.