Brian Johnson Esq: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 August 2022:
The cornerstone of any democratic society is the ability of its rulers to tolerate free speech, alternative views, and sometimes out-right unpleasant and rude opinions. George Orwell said of free speech, “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
With the advent of the internet and its periphery Information and technology, the human fingers have become an information superhighway where volumes of information is generated and disseminated within a short period of time. This singular invention has made the 21st Century an increasingly competitive one in all spheres, more so in the political arena.
Politicians now have the ability to reach millions of people within a short period of time, be it via mass-mailing or virtual-gatherings like we witnessed in the US 2020 Presidential Election when Candidate Biden held virtual campaign rallies.
The discourse of free speech is very much relevant today than any other time in Sierra Leone’s history, not only because of the occurrences of the past week, but also because supporters of the SLPP led government have deployed a narrative that the President Bio led government has championed free speech by repealing the notorious and hated libel laws that had existed in our law books.
Many have countered this narrative by pointing to the Cyber Crimes Act 2021 which many argue has limited the free speech space by criminalising mediums of criticising and holding our leaders accountable. One such cited example is the case of Hon. Kemoh Sesay, a former APC government minister, who was arrested, charged with cyber bullying of the President and refused bail at the Magistrate Court.
Others have also pointed to the seeming blanket refusal of the Police to approve requests made by citizens and groups to engage in protests, mostly citing the risk of unscrupulous people using those demonstrations to engage in acts of lawlessness. In all of this, it would appear to some citizens that the adage of giving with the right hand and taking it back with the other has come true.
Is it true that the space for free speech in Sierra Leone is constricted?
Sierra Leone as a member of the family of progressive states and International Order is a signatory of many international instruments. These instruments are “jus Cogen”, peremptory norms of general international law accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole from which no derogation is permitted. Amongst the many international instruments Sierra Leone signed and ratified is the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Article 19 of the said declaration provides that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
The spirit of Article 19 is captured in Sections 25 and 26 of the 1991 Constitution that has a similar provision, as follows:
Section 25 states that: Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, and for the purpose of this section the said freedom includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, freedom from interference with his correspondence, freedom to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions, and academic freedom in institutions of learning:
Section 26 also states that: “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of assembly and association, that is to say, his right to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular to form or belong to any political party, trade unions or other economic, social or professional associations, national or international, for the protection of his interests”.
The importance of these guarantees is to forestall dictatorship, shield society against repression, foster accountability, democratic good governance and give citizens the platform to criticise their governments and leaders. So, the President Bio led government should pay serious attention to these norms and how it syncs with its governance style.
In the past week, the debate about free speech has ranged unabated given that the protests, which in themselves are an extension of free speech, have ended violently with scores of our compatriots losing their lives.
Many SLPP party operatives and a handful of senior members of the government have pointed accusing fingers of incitement at those that advocated that Sierra Leoneans have the right to engage in peaceful protest and assemble unimpeded by any agents of the state.
Ady Macauley Esq., a prominent legal practitioner who never shies away from controversial legal and constitutional arguments waded in the debate. He took on government establishment lawyers and surrogates like SLPP Member of Parliament Hindolo M. Gevao Esq., Deputy Minister of Justice Umaru Napoleon Koroma Esq. and Presidential Press Secretary, Usuf Keketoma Sandi Esq. on radio, television and on twitter.
He fiercely argued that contrary to the government narrative that all protests need the permission of the Inspector General of Police, not all protests need police permission slip. Those who argued that all protests need the permission of the Inspector General of Police premised their arguments on section 17 of the Public Order Act of 1965 which is reproduced below:
S.17. (1) Any person who intends to take part or takes part in organising or holding any procession shall first notify the Commissioner of Police in writing of his intention to do so and any person who fails to give such notification as aforesaid shall be guilty of an offence.
(2) The Commissioner of Police shall by order in writing addressed to such persons giving notice, disallow the holding of any procession or impose such conditions as he shall think fit on any procession where in his opinion the interests of defence, public order, public safety or public morality so require.
(3) Any person who takes part in any procession which has been disallowed by the Commissioner of Police or fails to comply with any of the conditions imposed by him under the provisions of sub-section (2) shall be guilty of an offence.
(4) Any person found guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding two hundred leones or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or both.
(5) This section shall not apply to processions of the following nature: a. circumcision; b. funeral; c. marriage; d. scouts or girl guides; e. schools.
Ady Macauley Esq. differed; he contended that the word “Procession” should not be confused with the word “Protest”. He contended that while some protests can end up being processions not all protests are processions. While on AYV on Sunday on 10th July 2022, debating with Hon. Hindolo M. Gevao Esq., he defined procession as the movement of people or vehicles in an orderly formation from one place to the other.
Ady said if a protest takes the form of a procession, then it falls under Section 17(1) of the POA and requires notifying the IGP, but if they take the form of a “Static Protest” i.e. ONE PLACE TIMAP EN PROTEST it is not a procession and therefore no notification to the IG is required as per Section 17 POA.
On a twitter debate with Yusuf Keketoma Sandi Esq. and Umaru Napoleon Koroma Esq. on 6th August 2022, Ady Macauley Esq. replied to Napoleon who challenged him to come out and protest any day.
Ady said, “ it is my business if I chose to come out and protest or stay at home, your business is to uphold the right to peaceful protest & provide a secure environment for that”. In reply to keketoma, Ady said “@keketoma_sandi while one needs to notify the Police to engage in processions, there is no obligation to notify if one is to engage in static protests i.e. ONE-PLACE TIMAP EN PROTEST”.
These purely academic debates appear to have now been exploited by many ruling party operatives by pointing accusing fingers at Ady Macauley Esq. as an inciter of the protests and that he should be blamed for the riots. This is just pure politics and dangerous ground.
Criminalising free speech, more so professional legal opinions of a Solicitor will limit plurality of opinions and drive people underground, which is more dangerous than what they have to say in the exercise of free speech. I have never heard of any gun right advocate arrested and charged with inciting mass shooting in the United States of America.
You may not agree with or like the way Ady interpreted the law, but it is his right to do so which no one can take away from him.
It is in the interest of our democracy to uphold fundamental rights of the citizens including free speech. Harry S. Truman said:
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and created a country where everyone lives in fear”.
I am not sure we want to become that country ……… so mind the GAP which could be exploited!!!
About the author
Brian Johnson Esq is a legal practitioner in London, United Kingdom