Criminal Libel laid to rest: Advancing liberalisation and Professionalism in the Media Landscape
On Thursday 23rd July 2020, the Parliament of Sierra Leone amended the Public Order Act of 1965 (Act No. 46 of 1965) by repealing Part V of that law which deals with criminal libel and also enacted the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020.
The Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swaray, in a tweet following the amendment said that "His Excellency the President, Dr. Julius Maada Bio has consistently argued that the repeal of (Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965) will unshackle free speech, expand democratic spaces, and consolidate our democracy."
For journalism scholars, this positive move by His Excellency The President and his government reminds us of former United States President (then Minister) Thomas Jefferson's letter to Edward Carrington, his delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788. Jefferson wrote that between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he (Minster Jefferson) will not hesitate to choose the latter. This dictum by Minister Jefferson continues to be a standard guide in the recognition of the role the media plays in a democratic society.
The repeal of Criminal Libel in Sierra Leone adds to the growing movement in Africa towards the decriminalisation of defamation. It is founded in the historic 2007 Cape Town Declaration of Table Mountain and the 2013 Midrand Declaration of by the Pan-African Parliament. It is also consistent with the landmark judgment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACtHPR) in the Konaté v Burkina Faso case. Lohé Issa Konaté, editor of the weekly L'Ouragan newspaper was jailed for one year in 2012 on defamation, public insult and contempt charges. The court ruled that Konaté's imprisonment violated Burkina Faso's obligations under the African Charter and instructed the Burkina Faso authorities to amend their law to prevent the occurrence of further such violations.
Prior to this judgment, our West African neighbor Ghana had repealed its Criminal Libel and Seditious Laws in July 2001. The repeal followed the passage of the Criminal Code (Repeal of the Criminal and Seditious Laws - Amendment Bill) Act 2001 by a unanimous parliamentary vote. The repeal had immediate and positive impact. It removed threat against journalists and others and opened the space for free speech and media inquiry. On the flipside, the repeal resulted in an increase use of civil libel proceedings to seek redress. Losing media houses have suffered dearly by way of huge pay-outs in damages. Such damages have threatened the existence of some media outlets.
Envisaging the need to achieve a balance of an empowered yet responsible media, provision is made through the review of the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020. The IMC is established to serve as a buffer between media "tyranny" and responsible use. As the experience in Ghana and other countries has shown, the existence of this buffer is not full-proof.
The Bio Administration has delivered on its promise - 'Press Freedom has been given a boost in Mama Salone! What is now needed is for the Media owners, publishers and practitioners to step up in respecting their role and responsibility to serve the public interest at all times. This will be enhanced by building the capacity of journalists and other media workers to raise ethical and professional standards and ensure effective self-regulation mechanisms. The role of the IMC will be enhanced if practitioners will commit to speedily investigating complaints and appropriately rectifying when necessary. In the supreme interest of enhancing our democracy, the important buffering role of the IMC needs to be appreciated, respected and upheld by all.
For Love of Mama Salone! Lonta ka da Bai!
Yeama Sarah Thompson