Government of Sierra Leone agrees to repeal criminal and seditious libel laws

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 September 2019:

Sierra Leone’s cabinet through the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Ministry of Justice, yesterday, Wednesday 11th September 2019, approved a repeal of Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act.

The Minister of Information and Communications, Abdul Rahman Swaray says that the Attorney General and Minister of Justice will table the repeal Bill in Parliament, when the legislators resume sessions this month.

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.

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.

Section 25 (1) of Act No 6 of 1991 Constitution says:

“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.”

Before now, several moves have been made by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) to get the law repealed.

In 2009 the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone in line with its mandate in Section 28 (Enforcement of Protective Provisions of Human Sections) and Section 124 (Interpretation of the Constitution) of the Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone dismissed SLAJ’s case for the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law (Part V of the Public Order Act) in Sierra Leone.

In the Case – SLAJ vs The State of Sierra Leone, the journalists’ association argued that Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act contravenes Section 25(1) of Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone. Therefore the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone should declare that law null and void by virtue of Section 171(15) of the Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone.

Section 171 (15) of the Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone reads:

“This Constitution shall be the supreme law of Sierra Leone and any other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void and of no effect.”

However, the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone at the time did not hold that view. The Court, just like all some media critics, believed that the Criminalising of the Defamatory and Seditious Libel Law is constitutional.

Many are of the opinion that freedom of expression in Sierra Leone is not an absolute right. It is subject to many exceptions. In Section 25(2) of the 1991 Constitution, the exceptions are that “Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in the contravention of this section .”

Therefore, many believe that one of the laws that is not inconsistent with the provisions of Section 25(1) is the Law on Defamation and Seditious Libel.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s decision by the Bio-led government cabinet ministers resonates with the campaign promise made by President Julius Maada Bio to repeal Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965, particularly as the current law allows for pre-trial detention, and more importantly, under it – in Section 28, truth is not necessarily a defence.

Part V Section 28 of the Public Order Act reads:

“On the trial of an offence of libel against sections 26 or 27, the accused having pleaded such plea as hereinafter mentioned, the truth of the matters charged may be inquired into, but shall not amount to a defence.”

This move by President Bio has been hailed by many as a success, as his predecessors since 1991 promised and failed to repeal the law which journalists say is obnoxious, retrograde and bad for democracy in Sierra Leone.

It is now up to the country’s parliamentarians to pass this Bill into law, once they return from recess.

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