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.”