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Sierra Leone News: CPJ Urges SLPP Government to Abolish Criminal Defamation Law

The Committee to Protect Journalists in the United States has commended the SLPP government of Sierra Leone for expressing “the political will to ensure that criminal libel will indeed be abolished.” CPJ urged President Julius Maada Bio to speedily translate his government’s commitment into practice by annulling the criminal libel law in his first 100 hundred days in office, or very soon thereafter.
The Criminal Defamation Libel is a public order act adopted in 1965. Previous governments have used the law to undermine press freedom in the country.
CPJ was responding to President Bio’s reassuring the Sierra Leone media of his commitment to ensuring press freedom. The President was meeting last week with executive members of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ, at State House in Freetown when he reassured them.
President Julius Maada Bio was elected in March. Press freedom was a lead campaign promise he made several times, prior to the election. Mohamed Rado Swarray, the country’s Minister of Information and Communications, also, assured SLAJ of the government’s commitment to getting rid of the infamous 1965 criminal defamation law.
According to Awoko newspaper, Swarray said that the government “will fulfill all its commitments to the Sierra Leone media, including the repeal of the criminal libel law.”
CPJ Africa Program Coordinator, Angela Quintal, said that CPJ has no doubt that repealing criminal defamation in Sierra Leone will be a significant step towards safeguarding press freedom as well as strengthening the rights of the citizens of Sierra Leone to access information.
CPJ has repeatedly condemned the criminalizing of journalists for doing their jobs. The group has been part of a sustained global campaign to abolish criminal defamation, including in Africa.
The CPJ Africa Program Coordinator said that last month, ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, CPJ was part of over 150 NGOs and prominent African writers in signing a petition calling on African states to abolish criminal defamation and “insult” laws. The organizers presented the petition to the Pan African parliament and to the chairperson of the African Commission.
A 2010 resolution from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights urged all member states to repeal criminal libel laws. Quintal said that both the African Union special rapporteur and the United Nations special rapporteur, on freedom of expression, have repeatedly called for criminal libels to be abolished. “Given that Sierra Leone is a member state of both the AU and the UN it must do the right thing, sooner than later.”
CPJ agreed with SLAJ’s president, Kelvin Lewis, when he told President Bio that the government does not have to start from scratch but can build on work already in progress towards repealing the libel law. CPJ said there is really no reason to delay repealing any further and “if the new government is looking for low hanging fruits to show the international community that it is committed to democracy, then repealing criminal defamation would be the obvious way to go.”
Program Coordinator Quintal said that some of those in authority abuse criminal defamation laws and that such laws are used by governments to evade public scrutiny and accountability.
CPJ also allayed President Bio’s concern that abolishing criminal defamation will open individuals to unfair attacks by some in the media. Quintal said that no effort on the part of government is needed in that regard as civil defamation which is a less restrictive remedy, is already open to aggrieved individuals.
Should the SLPP government live up to its promise and abolish the 1965 criminal defamation law, it will join the ranks of Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Gambia and Lesotho, the five other countries in Africa which have done so. It was last week that the Constitutional Court of Lesotho ruled that criminal defamation is unconstitutional.
By Aroun Rashid Deen in New York
Friday June 01, 2018.

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