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Sierra Leone News: Criminal Libel Law will be history by September 2019 -Info Minister assures

Allaying the fears of Journalists and building their confidence towards good governance, the Minister of Information, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, has assured that the Criminal Libel Law will be history by September 2019 when President Bio will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly. He made this disclosure while responding to concerns raised by both Journalists and Civil Society activists at the celebration of World Press Freedom Day at the British Council Auditorium on Friday 3rd May 2019, organized by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists in partnership with the European Union. “The theme of this year’s celebration is “Criminal Libel and Quality of Journalism.” According to the Minister, the intention of President Bio was to include the statement relating to the repeal of the obnoxious criminal libel laws from the country’s law books during his statement at the official State opening of the second session of the fifth Parliament. He however assured that all modalities have been put in place together with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and other partners, disclosing everyone is ready for the repeal as the document is with the office of the Attorney General for processing to be tabled in Parliament for possible ratification. “The Government of President Bio is determined to repeal the 1965 Criminal Libel Law,” he assured, adding that they also want to ensure media houses across the country meet with the minimum wage payment to ensure professional journalism. The Minister disclosed the government noted the fact that criminal libel law undermines free press in Sierra Leone, explaining that President Bio is firmly convinced that a press without criminal libel law will attract the best and brightest minds.  In his opening remarks, the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Gary Warrington maintained press freedom does not only protect journalists, but every individual in a given society… “Press freedom is a driving force of democracy, and bedrock for economic development.” The deliberation centered on the repeal of part five of the Public Order Act of 1965 that criminalizes defamation and seditious libel, which has been the cry of every other journalist in the country. Sometime in May 2018, President Bio assured members of the press that his administration will take immediate steps to repeal part five of the Public Order Act, and it’s now almost a year since he made that promise. The President, Sierra Leone Association of Journalist, Kelvin Lewis, maintained “in Sierra Leone the most pressing issue of Journalists is the repeal of the Criminal Libel laws, which is largely being resisted because of criticisms on the quality of journalism in the country”, which according to him forced the Association to come home and to instead use the theme “Criminal Libel and Quality of journalism as the theme for commemorating the World Press Freedom Day 2019. He informed the gathering that from primary school right through secondary school and University, teachers have impressed on pupil/students minds that they should always tell the truth. Maintaining even in Church, Pastors, Reverends and Bishops constantly preach about the truth and the bible says in John chapter 8 verse 32 that “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but “sadly the Criminal and seditious Libel laws speaks differently.” Recounting the history of the law, which was passed under the regime of the second Prime Minister, the SLAJ President went on “as one would expect, the first casualty was the Editor of the Patriotic Newspaper Dr Sam Hollist.” He added “Since then several journalists have fallen foul of its use by successive governments’” he said, citing several cases of journalists been embarrassed, jailed and humiliated by government officials over the years. “The politicians will continue jailing journalist and things will never change. It is the same politicians who pay the rogue journalists to write about other politicians,” he said, noting that the serious journalists are not involved in such acts. According to President Lewis, the serious journalists are hampered in improving their work because the law drives away investment and investors such that the media is kept in a perpetual cycle of poverty, and when the media is poor those politicians who have money will use them for the wrong purposes. One of the Senior Lecturers at the Mass Communication Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, Hindolo Tonya Musa, spoke about the political economy of the media. He said the media is affected by political as well as ideological leaning, and on the other side corporatists affect the quality of what goes into the newspapers. The President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, Bassita Michael, said journalists should not rely on Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution for there is the Public Order Act, which has a very controversial interpretation. She said, it is not entirely true to say that truth is not a defense, and it is not automatic to say that it is the truth so one can plead it, “Truth is only a defense when it is in the public interest, and public interest can be determined along with public morality, and national interest,” Bassita said.

By Alhaji Manika Kamara & Sulaiman Karim Sesay

Monday May 6, 2019.

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