Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 June 2021:
Last Wednesday, President Dr Julius Maada Bio was recognised as Press Freedom Champion by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), whose leadership paid tribute to his government’s repeal of the 1965 criminal libel laws which have been used by successive governments – including President himself, to jail journalists and those with whom they disagree.
Receiving the award, president Bio said, “I want to start by congratulating SLAJ on the celebration of their Golden Jubilee Anniversary. This is a great milestone for any professional group. But what makes it interesting is the fact that we certainly did this together. At a time when we have just repealed Part 5 of the Public Order Act of 1965”.
He emphasised that the achievement was important for the media and government’s commitment to free speech in the country, adding that when he made it a party manifesto to repeal the criminal libel laws, it was not just lip service.
The president said, he believes that democracy must go hand in hand with a free press and that SLAJ and government could be critical friends who respect and appreciate the place of a responsible press.
“That is why I decided to take the bold step. So, by honouring me with this, as a champion of Free Press, I think it’s important for me because it was already a commitment I made in my manifesto. But I think, I’d like to thank you for thinking about that, because many governments had an opportunity to do it. But they did not have the strength of mind to take on certain sorts of challenges. Of course, there were critical views within my own government and elsewhere.
“But it can be a useful part of a healthy democracy. We cannot have just one voice, we should have a dissenting voice, especially when those dissenting views are responsible, I think, to give us the opportunity to rethink some of the decisions we make and add value to the decisions we make.
“I am never afraid of dissenting views. And maybe that is one of the reasons why I was never afraid to really take on this challenge. And as a matter of fact, everybody is a journalist in the world now with the new media. So that is why we talk about responsible and professional journalists, who can take critical views, synthesise them and make them useful for public consumption, rather than just commenting or stating what a lot of us do today on social media.
“I want to use this opportunity also to extend my gratitude to the minister of Information and Communications Mohamed Swaray, who has been tenacious, who believed in what I said. And despite the many obstacles that he came across, he held on to my promise and delivered on it. So, I want to thank him and the leadership of the ministry. It was never easy. And we will continue to make efforts to make sure that our country is a better place. It is not enough. Our efforts as a government are not enough,” he said.
On that note, I want to thank you for considering this award. And I will definitely assure you that insofar as I remain here, we will be critical friends and we will provide the support necessary for you to fight not only to practice but to thrive and be a better organisation. Thank you and I hope that friendship continues,” he ended.
Minister of Information and Communications, who declared the purpose of the event, said the President had rekindled the trust and confidence in the leadership of SLAJ and journalists, particularly as it related to freedom of the press and dignity.
“His Excellency they singled you out for recognition for your relentless efforts and abiding commitment to ensuring a free and unshackled media. You have done a lot for the media. You have dared where others have failed, even though you remain the most castigated, the most vilified the most lampooned presidential candidate in the history of our country. Nobody imagined that you will be rejected as to eventually become the cornerstone, bringing an end to 55 years of speculation, 55 years of trials and tribulations for the media in Sierra Leone,” he said.
President of SLAJ, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla said: “We had wanted the whole national and regional executives as well as the entire membership of SLAJ to physically join in expressing our profound thanks and appreciation for the repeal of the criminal libel laws.
“We wanted to demonstrate, in our own special way, our grateful thanks, so that you can also join in feeling that sense of freedom, which only those who have been to jail can relate to. For it is when you have been locked up and then released that you can fully appreciate what freedom means and how valuable it is for that fundamental human right to be respected and protected.
“Your Excellency, all Presidents and Junta Heads of State we have had in this country, including your very self, have jailed journalists using the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law, but none was brave enough to repeal the law. This was a law that shackled the Sierra Leone media and journalists for 55 odd years,” he said.
SLAJ president said that the criminal libel law was used 99% by successive governments and politicians to cower the media and intimidate and incarcerate journalists to escape being held to account and to clamp down on dissenting views.
He added that the law prevented women from coming into the journalism profession and aspire for leadership positions in the media industry, while also preventing private sector investment in the media and rendering the industry poor.