WHEN CIVIL SOCIETY AND OTHER NON-GOVERNENTAL ORGANIZATIONS REFUSE TO SEE ISSUES IN THEIR ROUNDNESS, THEY FORFEIT THE OPPORTUNITY TO INFLUENCE GOVERNMENT DECISION/POLICY- A REJOINDER TO AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
Sierra Leone – Freetown
On MAY 7th, 2015 Amnesty International (AI) Tuesday, May 4th, 2015 issued a press statement in which it accused the government of a series of violations of civil liberties.
In the opening paragraph, the statement says, “the government should stop using emergency regulations brought in to combat Ebola as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”. This is not only preposterous and specious, it is equally tendentious, misleading and leaves me in quandary as to whether the writers truly understand the meanings of the phrases- “freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly” According to the online business dictionary, freedom of expression is the “Right to express one’s ideas and opinions freely through speech, writing, and other forms of communication but without deliberately causing harm to others’ character and/or reputation by false or misleading statements. Freedom of press is part of freedom of expression”.
The operative terms in the above definition highlighted in bold are self explanatory. Any objective person following recent developments in Sierra Leone would agree that many of the statements in the print, electronic and social media, especially from pro opposition members and operatives; have been false, misleading and harmful to the character and/or reputation of others. Instances quite abound- there are audio visual clips and texts – and AI only needed to have made little effort to have produced a professional report. But when Amnesty International further barefacedly alleges that “rights have been unnecessarily or disproportionately curtailed” and that there has been “an increase in arrests of opposition members, bans on peaceful protests and an unwillingness to tolerate dissent…” it becomes glaring that their bias was premeditated and a mark of professional naivety.
The United Nation Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly is pretty forthright when he states: The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is the right to gather publicly or privately and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. This right includes the right to participate in peaceful assemblies, meetings, protests, strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other temporary gatherings for a specific purpose. Again, there is an operative term- ‘peaceful’ which underpins the established and unassailable fact that, in enjoying ones rights, the liberties of others must be protected.
Every serious researcher should know that there are several factors that would normally be considered regarding protests, strikes and/ or demonstrations. In this case, the appalling rancor, lack of leadership and bellicosity that characterize the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) only means that an attempt by its splintered members to jump on to the streets to protest in the name of freedom of assembly should be viewed with considerable suspicion. Whether it is at a ‘turning of the sod’ for a party office in Kenema, or a convention in Bo or a meeting at their party headquarters in Freetown, or in the electronic and social media, they have perpetuated unimaginable violence both in words and in actions wounding the character, reputation and persons of others including their own members.
So Amnesty International, who appears to be playing fiddle for Sierra Leone’s opposition SLPP should read the UN Rapporteur’s statement which further states inter alia that: “Under international law, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not absolute. Assemblies may be subject to certain restrictions, but such measures must be prescribed by law and “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others…International law only protects assemblies which are peaceful”. Now you would want to ask the simple questions: Were the restrictions not by law (A State of Public Emergency)? Was the law not promulgated to protect public safety and rights and freedoms of others given the belligerent and verbally violent track record of the ones Amnesty was trying to present as victims? Wasn’t it imperative, in the public interest for such potentially disorderly and violent protests/demonstrations to be prevented? Even the Leader and Chairman of the main opposition is on record that his party is “indisciplined and disorganized”.
What is more, he and his Secretary General dissociated from those strikes Amnesty International has erroneously described as “opposition protests”. Is it a case of the outsider crying more than bereaved? In their overzealous brinkmanship, AI went further to make very spurious and specious allegations citing extraneous instances, including the disorderly behaviour, on Independence Day, by some opposition operatives in Kenema and a statement by a staffer of the country’s Human Right Commission which the police consider an incitement.
AI also claimed that: “A march organised by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists on Independence Day in Freetown was also banned. Eight days earlier, 10 people were arrested for protesting outside the US Embassy, while in March a meeting of the Bar Association was broken up. In contrast, assemblies and events held by the governing party have been allowed. In November 2014 a journalist was detained for 11 days for criticising the Ebola response, and in April 2015 eight people from Kono were detained for six months without charge following disorder linked to a suspected Ebola case. Last month a man was charged with insulting the President after having forwarded a Whatsapp message he did not author”. Now let us look at these outlandish claims one in time.
First, was the proposed march by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalist anti- government? Certainly not! The expressed reason for that march – dubbed the ‘Yellow Ribbon Campaign’- was to drum up awareness around the fight against the Ebola outbreak so as to avoid relapse trough complacency. This is clearly a supportive action to the government’s avowed goal of getting to and staying at zero.
This is enough clues for the AI curb researcher to have known that there was more to the cancellation of the march. Police sources say that there were sinister plans by elements of the ‘indisciplined and disorganized’ opposition to hijack the planned peaceful march and cause havoc on the suspecting public. Regarding the unauthorized protest outside the American Embassy, can the AI researcher tell us whether she could participate in a protest by breaching her country’s laws?
There is a State of Public Emergency that necessitates the restriction of such activities deemed to be inimical to the peace and safety of others. Those considered peaceful have been allowed. Did Amnesty International not know that the Sierra Leone Football Association recently held a delegates’ conference? Didn’t they know that their beloved opposition recently held two separate meetings in Freetown? Didn’t they know that churches and other organizations have also held large meetings and conferences? Breaking up the Bar association meeting; this is what two lawyers who participated in the said meeting have to say: “The story about the Bar Association is a complete lie. Yes police went to the bar meeting but police did not prevent lawyers from holding their meeting it’s only when the meeting became unruly and noisy around 7 pm that police came in to disperse the crowd”. The second lawyer puts it even more bluntly; “That government sent Police to break up a meeting of the Bar Association is not only dishonest misrepresentation of facts but also dumb. The Bar had a peaceful meeting until some attendees decided to be rowdy chanting above their voices and all which led to the meeting tarrying beyond 6:00pm at which point the Police warned that it was past the time allowed by law”.
Again Amnesty International would have done themselves some good if they had taken time to cross check and balance their report. Those who listened to the so called “criticism of the Ebola response” agreed that the said journalist went overboard by inciting public outrage in a post conflict country and assassinating the character of others.
The last two accusations are so porous and the arguments so hallow that they failed to support themselves. Already, the researcher stated that, the eight people from Kono were detained for acts of “disorder linked to Ebola” which by itself justifies the State of Public Emergency. But to say that “a man was charged with insulting the President after having forwarded a Whatsapp message he did not author”, is the one that beats my imagination. In this case, AI claims that a man was charged yet it is still an issue! How disingenuous and superfluous- shifting the goal post as they go along. AI should learn that in this fluid and unregulated social media (Whatsapp), the responsibility for the content posted is on the individual. And in traditional media, the publisher is equally culpable, whether or not they are the authors of an offending piece. And let me be a little cynical and mischievous; would the Amnesty International team be happy if they were to be so caustically disparaged in social media?
Clearly, the Amnesty International “calls on the government of Sierra Leone to urgently review the State of Emergency provisions and to ensure that everyone can exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly in conformity with international and regional human rights law” are a complete charade and baloney. When civil society and other non-governmental organizations refuse to see issues in their roundness, they forfeit the opportunity of influencing government decision and policy.