On the re-opening of SLPP Office … “We would never encourage violence” John Benjamin...

Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: Repeal Salone’s criminal libel laws

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

A Sierra Leonean journalist was detained last weekend because he asked a question a government official didn’t like. As Awoko reported on Tuesday, journalist Sam Lahai asked the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, “how Mr. Sengu Koroma’s work as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs relates to the running of the Kenema District Council to the extent of summoning the Kenema City Council’s Chief Administrator…to his house, and threatening them with police arrest if they fail to obey.” For this, he was held in a detention center for two days and released under a bail amount 20 times higher than the normal maximum bail, according to lawyers.
As much as I and my journalism classmates back in the United States worry about the future of the field we want to enter, and sometimes gripe about the challenges of getting enough experience, we’re some of the luckiest journalists in the world.
I know this because, unlike my colleagues at Awoko, us American journalism students don’t have to work under the shadow of Sierra Leone’s cruel criminal libel laws, which should have no place in a modern democracy. These 300-year-old laws were introduced to Sierra Leone by the British, but they’ve long since been repealed in Britain. The versions of them that survived in the United States, another former British colony, have since been transformed into something far more protective of freedom of the press.
In the United States, libel is almost never considered a criminal offence. Journalists and news organizations can be hit with debilitating fines, but not jail time. And proving libel is difficult because it requires also proving that the author of the allegedly defamatory speech knew it was false — or else acted with “reckless disregard” to its veracity  but chose to publish nonetheless (this standard is called “actual malice”). Because it’s difficult to prove, the law provides greater protection for journalists. This is by design. However abysmal America’s recent record of persecuting journalists, the laws of the United States recognize the importance of a free press for a democracy. This is one of many reasons why presidential candidate Donald Trump, who advocates weakening these protections, is not fit to be president.
But in Sierra Leone, the criminal libel laws, especially laws regarding “seditious libel,” seem specifically designed to shield government officials from harm, while making it very risky for journalists to say anything that would displease them. Journalists can be punished with prison sentences of three to seven years, and “libel” is far easier to “prove.”
“Many of Sierra Leone’s journalists who have not attended Law School fail to see the ominous trap gaping before them when they criticize their government,” notes Sierra Leone news site Cocorioko. “The spirit of the law against sedition is that any comment about the government could be construed to have the tendency of lowering it in the public esteem, an act punishable under this law. Under Public Order Act 36(1)C, any unguarded criticism of the government could also be construed as destroying the peace.”
Because a key definition of seditious libel is how much contempt it would bring to the government from the public  and therefore how much unrest or chaos  truth is perversely not a good enough defense for the accused.
Because of this, and “given the circumstances under which the law was promulgated, one can only conclude that the primary purpose of the law is to provide undue shield for public officials from public scrutiny,” according to the website for the Sierra Leone Center for Accountability and Rule of Law.
On World Press Freedom Day in May this year, Awoko newspaper editor-in-chief and Sierra Leone Association of Journalists Kelvin Lewis spoke about the harm these laws cause. “In Sierra Leone the continued presence and use of the Criminal Libel laws is a constant threat of the right to media freedom, which is a fundamental human right,” he said.
This law is responsible for, as Awoko reported, a man being jailed and denied bail for calling Koroma a “wounded beast” on WhatsApp, and implying he was guilty of murder. It’s behind the more than 25 journalists detained between 2007 and 2016.
It’s also responsible for Sierra Leone’s mediocre press freedom ranking from Freedom House, which in 2015 gave the country a score of 50 out of 100. For a democracy, this figure this should be much higher.
Sierra Leone has emerged intact from years of one-party rule and the hellish turmoil or civil war. But the criminal libel laws prevent the country from flourishing as it should, because they undermine democracy.
Before I left for Sierra Leone, I was talking with a colleague of mine at Crosscut, the news organization I was interning with in Seattle, about my exciting opportunity to intern with Awoko. My colleague said it would be interesting to see how journalism is done in Sierra Leone. “Here, we can get basically away with writing anything,” he said. It’s true  and citizens are better off because of it.
I’m not saying anything in this column that countless Sierra Leoneans haven’t said before, and will continue to say until the law is replaced by a more reasonable alternative. I just want to add my voice to the many calling for an end to criminal libel laws in Sierra Leone.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Wednesday July 27, 2016

Comments are closed.