Sierra Leone Parliament has got rid of the country’s criminal libel laws

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 July 2020:

Yesterday, Thursday 23 July 2020  was a momentous day for journalism in Sierra Leone, as the country’s Parliamentarians unanimously voted to repeal the draconian laws that criminalise libel, as enshrined in Part 5 of the Public Order Act of 1965 (Act No. 46 of 1965).

Also of significance yesterday, was the unanimous approval by parliamentarians, of the controversial Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020, which is aimed at strengthening the powers of the IMC.

Although journalists are generally delighted about the repeal of the libel laws, many are worried that the new powers of the IMC could be used by government to punish and close down media houses they do not like.

Before the IMC Bill was passed, members of parliament debated several key issues, including the composition of the IMC Board, regulations and media ethics, rights, responsibilities, ownership of media entities and registration, public interests, fines and licenses levied against media practitioners.

Prior to discussions at the Committee of the Whole House, the Chairman of the Legislative Committee, Hon. Hindolo Moiwo Gevao presented a report on the legislative hearings on the said Bills proposing certain amendments for consideration by the House.

Chairman of the Parliamentary Legislative Committee – Hindolo Moiwo Gevao MP, said: “I want all of us to consider this moment as a solemn one in our democratic dispensation”.  He also said that several people have made tremendous efforts for this moment to become a reality, as he thanked President Bio for delivering on his manifesto promise by repealing the infamous Public Order Act which criminalizes libel to strengthen the media in Sierra Leone.

Gevao also thanked all the executive members of the Government saying that their generation would be remembered for this brave moment that is aimed at developing the media. He said as a lawyer, he had seen journalists belabouring strenuously under the crime of seditious libel; and referenced the case of Dr. Sylvia Blyden in 2010 and Philip Neville whom he referred to as “prominent publishers in Sierra Leone”.

“Today we have seen a repeal of a law that several Sierra Leoneans have laboured under its axe”, and asked the House to give a standing ovation to President Bio for repealing such a draconian law.

Acting Leader of the NGC, Foday Mario Kamara MP, also thanked President Bio for such a patriotic action adding that past presidents have tried to repeal this law but to no effect.

“Today, Sierra Leoneans will ask how safe are we in the hands of our journalists with regards to professional and responsible journalism,” he remarked, as he lauded the efforts of Government in its repeal process. But he said that safeguards are now in place for responsible journalistic practice in the country.

Leader of C4C – Saa Emerson Lamina MP, described yesterday as an epoch making moment that will  guarantee free speech in the country. He said that present and past Presidents of Sierra Leone have been very tolerant, compared to the situation in The Gambia during Jammeh’s reign.

He commended present and past executives of SLAJ for making frantic efforts in promoting the repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965. He also thanked President Bio for delivering on his campaign promise to the media. “RIP to the infamous Public Order Act and thank you to IMC and SLAJ”, he concluded.

The Speaker of ECOWAS Parliament, Hon. Sidie M. Tunis recalled how he started the venture to repeal the Act that criminalizes seditious libel. He said repealing Part V of the POA of 1965 is a clear manifestation of President Bio’s commitment and praised the efforts of the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed R. Swaray.

Tunis also appealed to the private sector to promote and invest in the media; assuring that there are no barriers in that sector any longer. “President Bio promised you and he has delivered”, as he called on journalists to practice their profession responsibly.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo MP, recalled his days in journalism when they were indoctrinated about the dangers surrounding the Public Order Act of 1965. He also spoke about efforts made by past and present executives of SLAJ with regards to the repeal process.

He commended the information Minister, Mohamed R. Swaray for his efforts that have seen the back of the POA of 1965. He also commended Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai for the role he played in promoting free speech.

“We have all tried our best to get to this point today,” IB Kargbo said, as he recalled the role played by the late Sam Metzger several years ago and other prominent journalists who had contributed to the repeal process. “I am satisfied that what we started several years ago has come into fruition”, he beamed with happiness, and described the moment as a great day for Sierra Leone.

Leader of the Opposition, Chernor R.M. Bah MP, said that the two Bills were passed by the present Parliament assembled and that it should not be politicized. He also thanked President Bio and others for repealing the infamous POA of 1965. He said as an opposition they will continue to support good things and would never attempt to politicize any good effort but will also continue to acknowledge the good work of past leaders and governments.

He also commended the Minister of Information and Communications, the Chairman of the Legislative Committee, the Speaker, Staff and Members of Parliament for their dedication and support towards the repeal process.

Concluding the debate, the Leader of Government Business,  Mathew Nyuma said “we came, we saw and we conquered”, and thanked everyone involved in the repeal process, saying this is a moment for the nation to celebrate.

He recalled how President Bio was maligned and tortured with calumny of hate by many journalists, but today he has done something ironical by removing the sword of Damocles hanging menacingly over the journalistic trade.

According to the Leader of Government Business, President Bio had promised and he has delivered.  He said the President and his Government will continue to deliver on their manifesto promises to the people of Sierra Leone and called on all to emulate the good work of President Bio using the maxim, “Paopa Salone for beteh”.

Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu said that Parliament has restored the dignity of the media by repealing the law and hope that responsible and professional journalism will hold sway in Sierra Leone. Speaking about the new IMC Act, he said all the safeguards are significant millstones to enhance and strengthen press freedom. He described the passage of both Acts as a triumph for democracy and good governance, as he thanked President Bio for delivering on his campaign promise.

He also prayed for the development of journalism for national advancement, saying that journalism has been moved from where it was to an industrious and dignified status.

Commenting on the new IMC Bill a few weeks ago, journalist – Lawrence Williams said: 

“The Independent Media Commission Act 2020 contains onerous provisions that would undermine media pluralism and completely eliminate the registration of newspapers as a ‘Sole Proprietorship’ business, and only provides for registration under the Partnership Act 1890 and the Companies Act 2009.

“The Act, if enacted by Parliament, will give the IMC sweeping powers to even shut down media houses on grounds that ‘it is in the public interest so to do’.

“It’s important to note that many newspapers in Sierra Leone are registered under ‘Sole Proprietorship’ as one among several options provided for under the current IMC Act.

“It is believed that the elimination of newspapers registered as ‘Sole Proprietorship’ under the ‘new law’ would lead to the closure of many independently owned newspapers, end media scrutiny of government institutions and public officials; and inevitably result to ending governance accountability and transparency in Sierra Leone.

“This particular law would not only put the young media owners/practitioners out of business but will also greatly undermine their livelihoods.

“Many young media practitioners like myself have invested millions of Leones into the operationalization of independently owned newspapers, and have also created employment for many. We also contribute to revenue generation through taxation.

“It is my considered view that the unnecessary rush to repeal or amend the current IMC Act – which is already sufficient to regulate the media – and the onerous provisions contained therein, have once more exposed the insincerity and hypocrisy behind the repeal of the Criminal Libel laws.”

5 Comments

  1. Until we start witnessing the practicalities of the repeal of the libel laws we should be cautious with our jubilation. The question is when Parliament voted for the repeal, did they simultaneously also do the same in their head ? The libel laws have been on the books for over half a century, shielding public figures from close scrutiny. It’s a shield they won’t throw away on a whim, they are going to devise other evil ways of silencing freedom of speech, including the use of violence and intimidation.

    At this initial stage, everybody should walk , not dive into the new arena. Journalists of all descriptions should be extremely skillful in their use of language to avoid unnerving some public figure into a temper tantrum. When a public figure squats ( “butu”) they should use peripheral vision to watch what they’re doing. Yes, we’re now into an atmosphere of “man butu man waach “ Believe it or not the politicians don’t like it.

  2. Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, if not the main package in the repeal of part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act (POA) – which criminalises libel as seditious, or a crime against the state. – she is certainly the CATALYST that accelerated the process to the eventual annulment of a draconian law, which has been used by successive governments to punish the public (especially journalists) that oppose government policies or shady activities. It was no coincidence on this same day of Thursday 23 July 2020, Dr Sylvia Blyden’s contempt of court hearing in her ongoing seditious libel was thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Obviously, it was a milestone and Dr Blyden inadvertently made history.

    The Bio-SLPP government had positive moves to repeal this obnoxious area of the POA, but lost momentum and desire as expectations in reviving the economy faltered; public confidence on the ability and temperament for the Bio-SLPP to steer the ship to a safe zone was totally lost. At this point, the bill to amend this thorny section of the POA, was withdrawn and shelved indefinitely. Meanwhile, the same section was used to clamp down public dissent, and Dr Blyden was to no one’s surprise the big fish of Maada Bio’s predatory trap. Did the President really have good intentions to repeal the seditious libel Act, or has he just reposition and alter the inclination of his green-netted trap?

    After spending 50 days at the notorious Pademba Road prison without charge, Dr Sylvia Blyden, the outspoken, radical, an some would say ‘stubborn’ red lady generated enough attention from various international human rights organisations: from the Canadian based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). The crunch to Maada Bio’s indifference to civil liberties and human rights came when the UK Minister for Africa, Mr James Duddidge expressed strong concerns about the continuous violation of basic freedoms in the country. Despite all these, what appears to be the key mover to all these events, Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden was not even mentioned during the ‘celebrations’ of this momentous day by parliamentarians. Certainly, present and future scholars would be unable to tell their stories without reference to the great lady as the catalyst to the outcome of Maada Bio’s experiment on the rudiments of tyranny. What an irony?

  3. Thanks again to our “ Talk and do” President Maada Bio for fulfilling his manifesto promise. Special thanks and praises should be rewarded not only to most powerful Information Minister Mr. Mohamed Rahman Swarray but also the most powerful Speaker of Parliament Dr. Abbas Bundu in the recent history of our nation for bringing all the parties on board.
    Finally, under the new direction government we are experiencing real democracy from the leadership of all the political parties in parliament which is definitely a win for mama Salone.

  4. Upon thorough inspection, any level headed, free speech, media-centric individual who can read in between the lines will not celebrate this overtly illusive libel repeal. For christ sake, why pretend to be freeing prisoners by opening the first gate of the cell room, only to lead them to another entrapment, which in this case the newly nonindependent, government of the day centric, IMC act? This is a typical case of running from the frying pot into the pit of fire. Propaganda and political grandstanding at its best!!

  5. Good things can happen in Sierra Leone. Our country is in a sorry state of affairs. It defies logic how as a small nation we managed to get here in the first place . last time we were celebrating the treason trial acquittal. Today we are celebrating, the repeal of the criminal libel and defamation Act of 1965. These two monumental events says more about the lack of good governance and transparency in our country. For us it has become a ritual, we only expect bad things to happen in our country. So any positive thing that happens is seen as a cause for celebration. However tiny that maybe. It is becoming a pattern. The pademba riots, followed by IMF bailout. Sylvia Bylden case, followed by PPE for medical staff, Makeni killing followed by census announcements and repeal of the 1965 Act.

    Its like everything is working out for maximum effect. Mr president you are not fooling anyone. Whilst in most effectively run democracies these events are normal. So far the repeal of the Act has demonstrated few things: firstly, where there is will, everything is possible. Secondly, and this is very important, if the president lead from the front and not from the back, he will make things happen. This is where my idea of one individual patriotic leader can change the fortune of a country. Premier Lee of Singapore did it for his country. President Xi of China is fighting corruption in his country never seen before.

    Thirdly if President Bio wants to succeed in delivering his manifesto promises he needs to work with the opposition. Right now what we are getting is mixed messages. In his policies, you will find the carrots and the sticks. He is using his big stick to strike at anyone that don’t agree with some of his ill thought out policies. May God bless the republic of Sierra Leone.

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