The paradox of free speech and the libel criminal Law

Abdulai Mansaray: Serra Leone Telegraph: 19 December 2021:

The Sierra Leone Criminal Libel Law was introduced by Sir Albert Margai of the SLPP in 1965. Undoubtedly, it became one of the most draconian sledgehammers used to muzzle and “zip up “opposition parties and “dissenting” media voices.

The APC party vociferously opposed the law then, but the late Siaka Stevens perfected the dark art on assuming power in 1968. It became his sharpest tool of choice, in the arsenal of his One -Party rule. Despite numerous promises to repeal this law in election manifestoes, successive governments continued to wield this sword of Damocles as antidote to democracy.

The fact that it took 55 years and an SLPP President Bio to repeal this anti-democratic law is not only ironic but self-owned.  Freedom of speech is the palm oil with which democracy is eaten and repealing the criminal libel law was a milestone in our history.

President Bio deserves all the plaudits he can get.  But does the recent spate of arrests, questionings and detentions put his legacy at risk?  isn’t it ironic that President Bio, who championed the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law is presiding over a period that has seen political opponents frogmarched to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), for voicing their objections to some of his policies?

Does this this give credence to the notion that “freedom of speech” is no guarantee for “freedom after speech”?

Media reports stated that Ms Diana F Konomanyi, the Eastern Regional Chairman of the APC and Ms Femi C. Cole, chairman of the Unity Party were arrested and detained (the Sierraleonetelegraph.com-13/12/21).  While Dr Dennis Bright of NGC was a guest at the Police HQ on 7/12/21 for speaking out against the controversial mid term census, Ms Konomanyi was roped in for an alleged video she released; calling on her Kono kindred to boycott the controversial midterm census.

Ms Cole endured a similar fate for similar claims, while chaperoning her colleague to the CID. Other political personalities are rumoured to have had similar experiences. Does it look like “freedom of speech” is under attack from supposedly, the High Priest of freedom of speech?

So, what is free speech or freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech can come in different shades, depending on individual perceptions.  According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Law, the United Nations recognised Freedom of Expression as a Human Right; a “principle that supports an individual or community to articulate their opinions and views without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction” (Student Companion). To others, it is the right to tell others what they don’t want to hear. By arresting or detaining Ms Diana, Ms Cole, Dr Bright and others for expressing their views, did Bio’s administration breach their human rights? If so, is President Bio giving with one hand and taking with the other?

But let’s remember that “every right has responsibilities. We measure our rights against the inherent responsibilities that come with such rights.  One has the right to remain stupid, just as others the right to rebel against that stupidity.

Sierra Leoneans have the right to vote, and that right comes with civic and moral responsibilities. Responsibility is the price we must pay in exchange for freedoms. Does the right to freedom of speech give anyone the right to falsely shout “FIRE” in a crowded cinema hall?

President Bio’s reign is painted in accusations, ranging from tribalism, nepotism, corruption etc predominantly by the opposition. President Bio’s SLPP supporters and sympathisers alike, accuse the opposition APC of trying to make the country “ungovernable”.  APC members/supporters have at various times, allegedly encouraged their following to engage in civil disobedience; in protest to some of Bio’s policies.

Members of both parties have resorted to trading insults (mammy Cuss) in musical lyrics and on the social media Stock Exchange. With neither party showing any appetite to discourage or condemn such abhorrent acts is suggestive of how low and kindergarten our politics has become. Silence can mean consent.

Like others, it is Ms Diana’s inalienable right to oppose the mid-term census. But does that include asking a whole district to boycott a national exercise, irrespective of the inherent controversies?  Many accuse her of vigilante politics and question why she didn’t do the same when Ernest created Kerana and Falaba Districts prior to the 2016 midterm census?

The SLPP won the Presidential elections, not the parliamentary elections. And that is not lost on the SLPP. Dig it? There are reports that some enumerators were chased with machetes in some parts of the country; just for asking someone their names and dates of birth. If true, this shows the potential dangers of lacing our views, rights or whatever with rocket fuel.

It is understandable for Bio’s administration to consider Ms Diana’s behaviour as an act of sabotage. Who would you blame if there were loss of lives? Would that have been worth it? The fact is, should the APC throw the baby out of the pram, each time it faces a political gridlock from the SLPP?

This is not justification for President Bio’s selective hearing impairment to opposition concerns either.  But there are better ways of getting under, over and around our political differences. Using the ever suffering and gullible electorate as pawns on their political chessboard is not only callous but selfish.

This is the kind of behaviour that has left many wondering whether our political landscape needs adult supervision. We can express our political differences without the need for “mammy cuss” as the main currency. The First Lady Fatima Bio was forced to publicly express her pain at being the subject of virulent “Mammy Cuss “during the victory lap of the newly elected SLPP Women’s Leader Hawa Foray.

President Bio reprimanded Fatima for washing the dirty linen in public. Perhaps she did so because Ngor Bio has not been listening to her pillow talk.  By virtue of her character, her position or role, she has been controversial. But irrespective of her controversies, Fatima Bio, like anyone else does not deserve such levels abuse. She is a woman for God’s sake.  Like or loathe her, you have the ballot box to make your feelings known, if you choose to.

Is President Bio at risk of destroying his well-earned legacy of repealing the criminal libel law?

No one is questioning the APC’s right to cast doubts or question the midterm census, for fear of political gymnastics. It takes one to know one and “cunning die……. But that shouldn’t be a carte blanche to promote, incite and support unrests in the country; all in the guise of free speech.

We shouldn’t demand freedom of speech as compensation for our freedom of thought, which we seldom use.  Equally, this does not give the Bio administration the right to arbitrarily arrest those who share views or opinions it doesn’t like. Such actions might put Bio’s legacy with Criminal Libel Law at risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

No one doubts the frustration, the sense of injustice, the threats and fear of persecution that comes with being in the opposition. No one questions the perceived injustices, discriminations, and unfair advantages that come with being in the opposition. But does that mean that we should continue to use the electorate, who by the way bear the brunt of the ineptitude of our politicians, as pawns of their political chessboard?

There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a difficult balancing act with very thin lines between democracy and tyranny. It can be difficult to soar with eagles when you fly with crows. But it can be done…. with a common sense of purpose.

Our two main parties never cease to tell us how bad and unfit the other is at governing. Ironically, not only do they use each other as standards or yardsticks to demonstrate their differences, but also as litmus test to measure their individual fitness to govern. How do you gauge your success against a failing or failed opponent as standard?  Try Singapore or Rwanda to measure your success.

In the meantime, the APC could do with officially naming their flagbearer; except if they want to risk another round of “you sabi am?”. Indecision can lose opportunities; and dreams can be destroyed during moments of indecision. Sometimes the key to success is doing what should be done, even if you don’t feel like doing it.

Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about the things that matter (MLK)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all. Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

8 Comments

  1. Commentators in this forum are avoiding the elephant in the room. Only Creoles are being arrested, this president is a petty man, who is bent on revenge for some perceived slight. I am sorry, unlike S.L.P.P, Creoles do not engage in midnight meeting planning the downfall of other people, neither do we engage in cannibalism, like in Jerehun, Kamajor headquarters.

  2. We are all in the same boat, on the same turbulent sea. The boat has a huge leak in it and in the end; we go up and down together. A corporate executive recently said to me, “we are not in the same boat.” We’re global. His response suggests why it is vital to inquire when executive governmental interest must be subordinate to public interest. Democracy always raises the fundamental question: what is the role of the most disadvantaged in relation to the public interest? It is similar in some ways to the biblical question: what are you to do with the least of these? I we do not want to live in a democracy, we are not obliged to raise that question. In fact, the aristocracy does not address the question. The Czar’s police, they don’t give a damn about raising that question. That is not the society they are. But within a democratic society, that question we must learn to continually raised and pushed.

    The conversation matters because real economic decline threatens the preservation of democracy. While it is identical to moral and cultural decay, it is inseparable from it. Even though the pocketbook is important, many in Sierra Leonean are more concerned about the inferior quality of their lives, the constant fear of violent assault and cruel insult, the mean spiritedness and cold-heartedness of political life, and the inability to experience deep levels of intimacy. These are the signs of culturally decadent civilization. By decadent, I mean the relative erosion of systems of nurturing and caring, which affect each of us, but which have an especially devastating impact on young people. Any civilization that cannot sustain its networks of caring and nurturing will generate enough anger and aggression to make communication near impossible. The result is a society in which we do not even respect each other enough to listen to each other. Dialogue is the lifeblood of democracy and we predicate it on certain bonds of trust and respect. At this moment of cultural decay, it is difficult to find a place where those ties of sympathy for the individual get nurtured.

    I ground the roots of democracy in reciprocal respect, personal responsibility, and social accountability. Yet, democracy is also about giving each person a dignified voice on decision-making process in those institutions that guide and regulate their lives. These deeply moral suppositions have a certain spiritual dimension. Writers have identified a spirituality of genuine questioning and dialogical exchange that allows us to transcend our egocentric predicaments. Spirituality requires an experience of something bigger than our individual selves and binds us to a community. It could be in an authoritarian bind, of course, which is why the spiritual and moral awakening that is necessary for a democracy to function rightly, based on a sense of the public – a sense of what it is to be a citizen among citizens.

  3. The problem with Bio is not Bio himself, but the content of his questionable character that he can be all things to everyone, and it all depends on the consistency he is speaking to. On the one hand he claims to have fulfilled a manifesto promises of repealing the 1965 libel and seditious Act, which to a great acclamation he was heaped with praise both inside and outside of Sierra Leone. And rightly so. Finally, as he said during the signing ceremony, never again should governments used this colonial era Libel and sedition Act to suppressed decent in the country. He went on to reassure, fellow Sierra Leoneans that they have the right to express themselves freely without the fear of being denied their basic human rights like arrest and detentions for saying the right thing, or wrong thing, depending on their beliefs.

    Then to cap it all up, the President signed into law the abolition of the death penalty. Which is welcomed, given the amount of inocent Sierra Leoneans that have paid the ultimate price for supposedly treasonous political crimes they never committed. Now one is left scratching their heads, why should the Sierra Leone police arrest opposition politicians like Dr Bright and Mrs Cole for voicing their opposition to the midterm census? As far we are concerned, none of them were advocating violence. So what was the point of having a free speech, if you can’t voice your opinion against a particular government policy you disagree with?

    The duty of any opposition party, or politicians is to hold the ruling party in to account. And by ordering the arrest of the opposition leaders, Bio is telling us, he was pushed by our Western partners to abolished the death penalty, and the 1965 libel and seditious laws. Otherwise if he was convinced by his actions, he will do everything within his powers to defend the right to free speech. May be the Sierra Leone police haven’t got the message. Its all lost in translation.

  4. And to avoid being misunderstood, I would like to make this clarification: the repeal of the criminal libel laws and the abolition of the death penalty are in and of themselves very good things and are therefore more than welcome. Even so, the politically motivated moves that have brought them to fruition should be called out. They are what they are: politically calculated moves by the current movers and shakers in the governance of our country.

    Indeed, Bio and his administration are milking unashamedly for all that it is worth the problematic nature of some of our laws, in hopes of keeping up appearances of democratic governance (the primacy under their watch of the rule of law and of human rights and freedoms) and of thus being in the good books of our partners in development, in particular Western governments, financial institutions and donor communities.

    On the ground, at home, when put to the test by courageous and uncompromising oppositional forces and voices, Bio and team find their masks of democracy all too inhibiting. They tear the masks off readily, baring for all to see their inherently despotic nature – red in tooth and claw.

  5. Thanks Mr Yillah, is always a pleasure to read your comments on this noble forum. Never in the history of Sierra Leone have so much being promised by a government, and so little have being delivered. The genesis of our problems, steam from our willingness to placed our trust on former members of the military, that is usually associated with discipline and a sense of duty to the country, flag and its peoples they serve, only to turned out to be an almighty disappoint as they transition to civilian life, and convince us to elect them to the highest office of the land. More like taking Tom Bradley, of the NLF and asked him to play for Manchester United FC, or Barcelona FC and expect him to score goals like Messi or Ronaldo. He will never live up to expectations, because you are taking him out of his comfort zone and come up with magic wonders.

    The only military leader that seems to have lived and led a military government, by the oath they took, to serve and protect the Republic of Sierra Leone, was Colonel Andrew Joxson – Smith. Possibly the best government Sierra Leone had, with no corruption and no tribalism. Just look at the achievements of our Mayor in Freetown that depends on a shoe string budget given to her by Bio, nevertheless able to deliver for her people than the central government. May be it was too good to be true, more like our country don’t deserve upright leaders like that. Today what we see in Sierra Leone, a country with a population almost the size of New York or London, the Bio government have only been consistent in one thing, lying to the people and the international community.

    Those that are brave enough to question the questionable, are hassle, intimidate, or in some case sent to prison, for merely having the guts to express their opinions. Then when Bio talk of being the champion of free speech, he should look at himself in the mirror and reflect on whether he is doing the right thing for Sierra Leone. Better still, since he have demonstrated to be all thing to all people, especially our international donor partners, he will be remembered for not what he promised us but what he did with his five years in office. Clearly he is taking Sierra Leoneans for a ride.Is like we are all packed in this vehicle, and Bio is in the driving seat, destination unknown.But to me it feels like we are approaching the cliff edge. The outcome of which is not bare thinking about.

  6. “Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t involve the freedom to make mistakes” If their actions was as a result of mistakes, let the law take it genuine action.

    Isn’t it ironic that President Bio, who championed the repeal of the criminal libel law is presiding over a period that has seen political opponents frogmarched to the CID for voicing their objections to some of his policies, to note the mid term census? The answer is NO. Let the audience know that all these mishaps is caused by some few unreasonable people who could just feel aggrieve of the policies of a government. This has been in practice for decades. For the politicians, such actions creates a scene for recognizing, reconciliation, leadership struggles and more. If their objections are geared towards creating unity and development, it is fine, but where their actions is geared towards bringing public discord, we must learn to reframe from supporting such ideologies.

    With regard to the Mid-term census. It went through the democratic process before becoming a document approved by parliament. The parliamentarians are the people’s voices. If they did not debate the mid-term census by nullifying it not to become a legal census, who in his own individual person should go ahead and incite the public not to adhere to the mid-term census. People should learn to know their limits of freedom of speech otherwise. Sierra Leone as a country need to move forward with development and good democratic principles if only we are ready to join the advanced nations in the world.

  7. In 1948, fifty countries came together and founded the United Nations declaration of human rights. The defeat of Hitler’ Nazi Germany,in 1945, and the dropping of nuclear bombs in the twin cities of Hirosima and Nigasaki, by the United States air force, that forced the Japanese imperial army to surrender, and finally brought the second world war in the Pacific to an end, was a turning point, for countries around the world, to say never again, should they allowed dictators , to suppressed the fundamental principle of human rights that governs us today. There were thirty acticles passed on the founding of the United Nations declaration of human rights in 1948. Acticles 18, gave the rights to citizens of states to believe what ever they want and practice, their beliefs. Acticles 19,gave individual the right to express themselves in whatever way they feel.The right to offend, and the right to be offended.

    Indeed after independence, many African countries adopted this universal United Nations declarations of human rights chather as written in their constitution. But each country has a way of interpreting this chather.some countries will argue for security reasons, they have to tailor laws that limit the freedom of speech. Individual can say anything, as long as they don’t undermine the security of the state. Buth what we’ve seen with Bio, is called selective justice.In 2020, residents Minister for Northern province Hon Abu Abu, one of Bio’s henchmen was threatened to kill youths and going after their families in Makeni in the presence of members of the Sierra Leone police. No arrest were made after that speech. Indeed the Sierra Leone police were waving their guns and cheering him on. But it is a different story with the opposition. Where is the mantra, we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Free speech quotes states :”If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” and the core to that message is:”I will disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it” and finally “I may not agree with you, but I will defend your right to make an ass of yourself.”

    Bio was praised for repealing the 1965 libel and sedition laws, which according to him have been used by many governments in the past to suppressed free speech and detained political opponents for expressing or even opposing government policies. But since the repealed of that law, we have seen the hypocrisy of Bio and the Sierra Leone police at work. It seems to me Bio has two audiences. He tells the international community what they want to hear. And do completely the opposite of his public pronouncements. A president that speaks with two tongues. Going forward the international community should judge him by his actions rather than his words. The Bio doctrine is “Is all talk no action” Thats what his legacy will be remembered for. Bio was never a defender of free speech, but rather he was playing to the gallery, to satisfy our Liberal Western partners. And he was doing it for the aid money to continue to flow to fatten his bank balance , not because he thought Sierra Leoneans deserves that moment.

    • I think you have hit the nail right on the head here, Mr Jalloh. President Bio (guided I suppose adroitly by his savvy academic/political mentor and Foreign Minister, Professor Francis, an expert in Peace Studies and so well schooled in the ways the international donor community works) knew precisely what he was doing in championing the cause of free speech and the resulting revocation of the criminal libel laws.

      One may even add – cynically perhaps but no less justifiably – that the abolition of the death penalty under President Bio’s watch, admirable as it is, is not without an intended, manipulative political edge to it – pandering to the proclivities of Western nations whose largesse the President and his administration depend on to line their pockets while pretending to run the affairs of our country.

      Put simply, benefits accruing to members of the wider Sierra Leonean society from the repeal of the libel laws and those relating to the death penalty are largely incidental.

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