Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 February 2022:
Yesterday, Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) President – Ahmed Sahid Nasralla spoke in the city of Bo, Southern Sierra Leone, as distinguished guest speaker at the Annual General Meeting of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, on the topic: ”The Repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965: What are the safeguards to prevent abuse by Journalists?”
This is what he said:
We are truly very honoured to be given the opportunity to discuss with brilliant legal minds gathered in this hall this morning the issue of available safeguards to prevent journalists from abusing the freedom accorded to us via the historic repeal of the obnoxious criminal libel law contained in Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965.
But before I dwell on that, please permit me to make a necessary digression to talk a little about our relationship with the Bar Association and why we need to strengthen that relationship through effective cooperation and collaboration in the interest of the public good.
SLAJ and the Bar Association have come a long way; as far back as the 70s when SLAJ was founded, a turbulent period for journalists in Sierra Leone. A period fraught with arbitrary arrests, detention and persecution of journalists for practising their profession.
During those days, according to our late female President Daisy Bona, when a journalist published anything controversial or a story the authorities deemed as anti-government, the media house would be stormed by armed SSD paramilitary police.
Such violent attacks always resulted in arrests and detention of journalists who were hurriedly charged to court under trumped-up charges relating to the criminal libel laws. In most cases, she recalled, printing machines and equipment were destroyed by unfriendly police.
Few journalists, she explained, were brave enough to raise their voices in defence of their persecuted colleagues or the profession but, I quote: ”the Sierra Leone Bar Association was the only organisation to speak for the media, challenge the government and defend journalists on pro bono. The aim of the government of the day was to silence all forms of opposition and free speech by invoking the criminal libel law legislated in 1965, four years after independence.” (End of quote).
The Honourable Vice President, Madam President, Madam President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, that is how far we have come.
And since then, the Bar Association has supported the cause of SLAJ in the pursuit of the repeal of the criminal libel law, a feat we finally achieved in 2020; 50 long years later.
Last year, during the celebration of our 50 years of existence, we had the honour of having madam President grace our golden Jubilee AGM here in this same city of Bo, and she delivered an awe-inspiring statement for the country’s media and her journalists.
Indeed, as madam President noted in her statement, lawyers and Journalists share a common cause to strengthen democracy and consolidate peace and cohesiveness in our country.
Yes, we both have crucial roles to play in promoting the Rule of Law and justice, safeguarding Good Governance, and protecting fundamental Human Rights like freedom of expression for every citizen, not just journalists. And madam President urged lawyers to take up these issues by challenging the actions in court and through various publications in the media.
We miss the late lawyer Jenkins Johnston Snr for his popular and widely syndicated letters to the President. The late man-made good use of the media platform, particularly newspapers, to raise these issues, challenged the actions of government, and proffered alternative solutions to key challenges faced by government and its agencies.
So our relationship has actually grown to the extent that we now have members in both professions and eventually we will soon have a journalist elected as President of the Bar Association and a lawyer as President of SLAJ. Very soon.
Therefore, and I make reference yet again to madam President’s statement, it is essential for effective collaboration and sustained partnership between SLAJ and the Bar Association. We are two very strong voices, and when we combine these voices and speak out and speak up on issues bordering on the common enemies of bad governance, injustice, lawlessness, corruption, tribalism, divisive politics, etc. the change we seek in our country will be achieved sooner rather than later.
The Honourable Vice President, Madam Chairperson, Madam President, the Directors and Members of the Bar Association, let me now quickly talk about the safeguards to prevent abuse by journalists of the newfound freedom necessitated by the repeal of the criminal libel law.
1. The Civil Defamation and Ordinance Law of 1961 which provides for civil libel.
When we were pursuing the repeal of Part V, the main concern always put forward by the authorities, including the Sierra Leone Parliament and some sections of the public generally, was: what will be the replacement if we take away the criminal libel law? Our answer has been: there is no replacement! And they would look back at us in astonishment.
The fact is that the repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act 1965 did not strike off libel law from our law books. What the repeal did, and that was the reasonable and right thing to do, was to take off the criminal from the libel. Nobody, not only journalists, should be alleged a criminal for expressing and publicising their opinion on issues or activities of government and public officials.
So civil libel law is still in our law books and it is one huge safeguard. With the Civil Defamation Law, the offending journalist (or citizen) is required to pay a fine/compensation if found liable in a competent court of law.
2. The Independent Media Commission (hereinafter referred to as ’IMC’) with powers to enforce its provisions in the Media Code of Practice.
Remember that the IMC was established in 2000 as part of the media’s move towards self-regulation. I will call this external self-regulation. The IMC, as a statutory body, registers and regulates the media in Sierra Leone.
With the repeal of Part V came the passing of the IMC Act 2022 which has strengthened the IMC’s powers of enforcement of the Media Code Practice.
Citizens who feel aggrieved by publications or broadcast by the media make a formal complaint to the IMC. The alleged offending media house will sit before the IMC’s Complaints Committee to defend their publication or broadcast. If at the end of the day the Committee finds them wanting, they can be fined, ordered to retract and apologise with equal prominence to the offending publication or broadcast.
The third safeguard is:
3. The Disciplinary Committee (hereafter referred to as ’DC’) with powers to enforce the SLAJ Code of Ethics. This I will call Internal Self-Regulation by SLAJ.
People aggrieved by the publications of journalists can also come to the DC to complain. The DC will investigate the complaint and if the journalist is found wanting, disciplinary action will be taken to serve as a deterrent.
The composition of the DC has been strengthened to now include members appointed from the public. The mandate of the DC has also been reviewed to not only limited to receiving and investigating complaints but to be pro-active to prevent complaints and accompany the media on its long journey to responsible, ethical and professional practice.
Furthermore, the DC is now supported by Regional and District Monitors to reflect the national nature of SLAJ.
A fourth safeguard is::
4. Editorial Policy of media houses. Editorial policies guide the direction of the media houses and adherence to quality and professional controls.
The Honourable Vice President, Madam Chairperson, Madam President, the Directors and Members of the Bar Association, a final and obvious safeguard is TRAINING. Continuous training and education of journalists are key to promoting responsible and professional practice.
We believe that the more freedom an individual gets the more responsible he/she becomes.
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to wish Madam President and her team a successful re-election and may your deliberations during this AGM be meaningful to your aspirations as a noble Association.