Sierra Leone’s politicians must repeal criminal libel laws now – an Op ed

Since the Criminal Libel Law was imported from Ghana and passed into law in Sierra Leone in 1965, succeeding Governments and the Politicians have used it mainly against journalists. In the 1980’s the pattern was to arrest the journalist after Muslim prayers (around 2 to 3pm) on Friday, take him to the CID, take statement and charge him, and keep him behind bars until Monday.

If the angst against the journalist is still boiling, then he is taken to Court on Monday, denied bail until after the following weekend. Paul Kamara of For Di People fame suffered this lot during that era.

Nowadays the pattern has modified. The journalist is invited or arrested late afternoon or evening and taken to the CID. There they go through the motion of interrogation and statement taking. This process goes on until about 8 to 9pm. Then the journalist is told the Police bosses have gone home and there is no one to vet the statement and issue the order for his release, so he has to sleep at the CID. He is then transferred to the cells to continue the interrogation the following day.

Whichever way the journalist is detained even though the period varies according to the angst or boiling anger; it rarely ever gets to court. The last case to go to court was Jonathan Leigh and Bai-Bai Sesay against Ernest Bai Koroma.

I have found it difficult to understand what the politicians really intend to achieve by locking up the journalist? I ask this question because detaining the journalist does not in any way repair the reputation of the politician, hitherto tarnished by the journalist. In fact, what it does is to further soil whatever is left of that “good name” if there was any in the first place.

Let me explain. When the public learns of a journalist being arrested albeit “on the orders” of a politician, their sympathy immediately goes to the journalist without enquiring. This is because the public sees politicians as untrustworthy people; and in any infraction with a journalist, they straight away jump to the conclusion without asking, that the politician is using power to bully the journalist.

The public sides with the journalist because they know that journalists largely speak on their behalf; and more importantly they believe journalists are the only people via their profession who can challenge and get under the skin of the all-powerful politicians.

The Journalist fraternity

With this sympathy, other journalists come around in solidarity, (regardless of whether he is right or wrong) and begin to call for his release. As the calls get louder the spotlight is then turned on the politician and accusations of him being the perpetrator gains momentum. The Civil Society Organisations, Human Rights Defenders join in.

Then International Press defenders like the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) note the incident down with the name of the politician, this is followed by others like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Freedom House, International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) and West African Journalist Association (WAJA) and others. They put the politicians name on record and whenever anyone visits their web sites, the politicians name stands out there.

Effect on the Country

This goes to affect the country because the Press Freedom Index is affected for the worse and it is important to note that even the MCC look to these international press institutions to rate certain categories.

If one should check the latest 2020 MCC score card, ( Freedom Of Information scored 85%, but if one should watch the small print underneath the score, one would see RSF/Freedom House/CLD – these are the agencies responsible for that score.

Freedom House is similarly listed under Political Rights and Civil Liberties exclusively. Freedom House is a US government NGO who specializes in research on democracy. It supports the Press Freedom Index and on its own it releases the Freedom in the World report and the Freedom on the Net. Also the US release their own Human Rights report where each country is assessed through work done by the embassy on – among others, Press Freedom.

So with the local press organization (SLAJ), the local CSO’s and NGO’s, the in country embassies and the International Press advocacy organizations (RSF/CPJ/Freedom House) the politician certainly does not win by using the criminal libel against journalists. Through the work of these organizations the politician most obviously is left fighting to protect what is left of a soiled reputation.

The recent experience of the Chief Minister (Photo) is a case in point. Without any substantive proof that he is guilty, his reputation was soiled. Of course the court of public opinion weighed heavily against him, forcing him to explain his actions via a press release and sympathetic posts from friends and family; and even the Paramount Chief from his homeland, could not successfully clean his already soiled reputation. Sadly, he will have to live with the taunting of an unexplained $1.5 million by his political opponents for the rest of his active political life.

Another case in point is that between Justice Miatta Samba and Mamud Tim-Kargbo. The learned Judge saved herself by stating in court that she was/is a Human Rights Lawyer, and she was not opposed to Tim-Kargbo being released on bail.

My point is when the issue is described as Criminal Libel in law it warrants a jail sentence. When the same issue is described as Civil Libel, it warrants a fine.

“Poverty in the media”

One of the reasons I have argued against use of the Criminal Libel is the drama which surrounds it. And this is not only because of the jail or detention, which admittedly is paramount, but in addition to all the noise from journalist organizations, the fact remains, the reporter, his publisher, the production official, the manager of the commercial printing press, the newspaper vendor who sells in the street are all liable to be dragged to jail.

The New Breed case Vs Valentine Strasser, the For Di People Vs Ahmed Tejan Kabbah are vivid examples, where the manager of Atlantic Printers was jailed along with Dr. Spencer (Editor, New Breed) and Paul Kamara (Editor, For Di People) and the Old Lady who owned John Love printers spent time in jail. They knew nothing about the offending stories, they were only contracted to print.

In fact both Printing Houses summarily collapsed as businesses. This provided ammunition for people interested in investing in the media to take their monies elsewhere. Thus because of the Criminal Libel there is “poverty in the media” to use the words of the Hon. Vice President.

Civil Libel

When Civil Libel is used nobody shouts. The journalist is on his own. The media backers (SLAJ, International Press Organizations, Human Rights, NGOs and CSOs) all remain silent … why? Because he is not detained or jailed. He can spend time in jail because he does not fulfill bail, but not because of what he has published.

The case of Philip Neville (Editor, Standard Times) and Finda Koroma, where Civil Libel was used, only came to prominence when the court forced the journalist to publish the judgment in other newspapers other than Standard Times. There was no drama. The lady got compensated and the publication of the judgment was done with a little more prominence than the manner in which the offending story was done.

The Civil Libel calls for fines. If the journalist cannot pay the fines, then his property is confiscated by the courts to make up the amount of the fine. If the journalist is so poor and has nothing, then he is declared a bankrupt. Being declared a bankrupt means the journalist cannot practice journalism again because the law says a bankrupt cannot practice any regulated profession, and this includes journalism.

One would think using the Civil Libel, the politicians can obtain justice – if the court so determines – without any drama and perhaps a restoration of their reputation with equal prominence. Using the criminal libel, the politicians do not win, and this is why it is in their interest to repeal the law.

The Ghana experience

Ghana from where this law was copied has repealed it. Many people here are saying that the Ghanaian experience was bad and there is now an outcry for the law to be brought back. This is a lie. The Civil Libel has been uncomfortable for journalists because they have been handed heavy fines in the courts and cost of litigation has gone up.

A Ghanaian lawyer told me that the politicians have been uncomfortable because the level of probity they are experiencing is very high. Anything they do can be discussed on the radio with the public actively participating, and they cannot jail the journalist; but it keeps them in check. So the absence of the Criminal Libel has been nothing but good for Ghana and NO ONE is calling for it to come back.

So as I see it, the politicians must bite the bullet and repeal the criminal libel, it does nothing good to our system. The civil libel and defamation laws provide adequate safe guards. They cannot continue to be afraid of what only harms them more than protect them.

About the author

Kelvin Lewis is a former President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists.

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