Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 May 2018:
On Monday 21st May 2018, president Julius Maada Bio met with the executive members of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) at State House, where he yet again reiterated his government’s commitment to repeal the country’s odious criminal libel laws.
Previous governments have used these laws to arrest, charge. prosecute, and in most cases incarcerate journalists and stifle freedom of speech in Sierra Leone.
Although the repeal of the criminal libel laws was a manifesto commitment made by former president Koroma in 2007 (Photo), he failed to expunge these laws from the statute books. Will president Bio succeed?
President Bio told SLAJ that it is a commitment enshrined in his party’s 2018 New Direction Manifesto.
The 1965 Criminal Libel Act he said, criminalises free speech, undermines creativity in arts and stifles the growth of journalism.
The New Direction Manifesto states that; “Low private investment in music and the performing arts is due to a combination of factors, including the weak policy and legal environment, particularly the seditious libel law”.
“The media is an important component of society that plays a critical role in the democratic process, especially in deepening transparency and accountability in public institutions,” the president stated, adding that journalists should be given the free space to operate by creating the right environment for private sector investment in the media.
He said he was hopeful of a future that would help restore the pride of the trade and promote professionalism in the practice of journalism.
“We are committed to providing annual subvention to SLAJ as promised, and open up possibilities of a sustained dialogue with relevant authorities on ways to ensure respect for privacy of people and minimise malicious attacks by some sections of the media,” he said.
The president of SLAJ, Kelvin Lewis, thanked the President for the audience, adding that the association was very excited at the show of political will and prospect of expunging the seditious libel laws.
He said that SLAJ is determined to work with the Government to abolish the law, and also promised that measures were already in place to maintain professionalism among journalists.
“Mr President I want to plead that your good office creates a specific chapter in the national constitution that will handle the media and its related issues. We have made this proposal during the constitutional review process, but to our greatest dismay it did not appear in the final Government whitepaper,” he explained.
“The media plays an important and critical part in the democratic process; so we need this kind of dialogue with you. We should work together for you to have the latitude and freedom to do what you are supposed to do. That is the reason for our commitment in our manifesto.”
President Bio assured SLAJ that they will look at the Criminal Libel laws and bring it in conformity to what obtains today. However, he noted that the fear is that it will open individual and groups of people to unfair attacks by certain sections of the media.
“But this concern is the only snag and we should be able to handle that by ensuring that everybody is covered and people’s hard earned reputations are protected,” he said.
“It’s good now that we have somewhere to start and we are not starting all over again. We’ll also look seriously at the Independent Media Commission and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation. This is the dawn of a new era, we should turn a new page, look at the issues and be proactive in dealing with the challenges facing these bodies.”
According to report by SLAJ’s Secretary General – Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk), president Bio also mentioned Social Media, which he described as a new frontier that must be utilized so that it will not be detrimental to society.
On the budgetary subvention, President Bio said it is meant to support the leadership structure of the media to function properly.
Responding to a request by SLAJ for regular press conferences with State House, President Bio said there will be the usual press conferences, and assured that there will be some that he will do himself to be able to keep the media abreast with his work.
“We should work hand in hand to move this nation forward and we should be genuine in our engagement. This is the beginning of the relationship. If we are going to part, we will do so as friends and in a democratic way,” president Bio told the journalists.
Kelvin Lewis congratulated the President upon his election victory and presented a draft policy document on the efforts made so far in the process of repealing the criminal libel law and strengthening of the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC).
Lewis explained that they’ve had some lengthy consultations on the need for repeal of the law with support from the offices of the former Ministers of Justice and Information, the Justice Sector Coordinating Office (JSCO), the British High Commission, the US Embassy, the Irish Embassy and involving all stakeholders from the Sierra Leone Police, CSOs to the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) and the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA).
“This means we cannot start all over again but we can move from where we left off. Yet we are ready to work with the government and the relevant stakeholders to review what has been done so far, and see what we can add or delete to get a better document,” said Lewis.
The SLAJ President also called on President Bio to look into the original Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) Report which he said contained a proposed Chapter on media freedom.
“The press freedom provisions in Sections 11 and 25 of the 1991 Constitution are not justiciable. So we presented a case for a specific chapter for the media as obtains in other African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. The proposed chapter reinforces press freedom and freedom of expression, the IMC and the public broadcaster and the CRC accepted the proposal but it was turned down by the Government White Paper,” said Lewis.