Reviewing the 1965 Public Order Act: Why is SLAJ jumping the gun?

 – Tuesday 11 March 2008.


By Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Bristol, UK.

While I have in my recent articles called, and I am as a matter of fact still calling, for an urgent review of the obnoxious 1965 Public Order Act, particularly that aspect of it that criminalises libel, I am seriously questioning the wisdom of the court action by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) against the newly installed government of Ernest Koroma which as far as I know has put in motion a process to do just that, that is, review the law, leading to a most likely repeal.

In my opinion, suing the government that has promised to review this law in a way that will decriminalise libel, and which has just been in power for about six months is tantamount to asking for too much too quickly. This no doubt makes the motives of the court action suspect to say the least.

I still remember President Koroma re-echoing his government’s pledge to promote press freedom by reviewing the 1965 Act in some of his first public speeches as president; he reiterated this when he recently met the SLAJ executive.

His vibrant Information Minister I.B Kargbo, former SLAJ president, is on record to have pledged a review of this law as his first priority when facing the Parliamentary Committee on Appointments. Let us remember that the APC manifesto, unlike that of its main rival, the SLPP, made a firm pledge, among other things, to get rid of the criminal libel law as part of the party’s wider aim to promote free speech. President Koroma recently said that his government is committed to press freedom and is working towards taking the review of this law through parliament.

Vice President Sam Sumana also recently appealed to the Law Reform Commission and the Speaker and Members of Parliament to support the campaign by civil society and the media for the repeal of the criminal libel act. Recent media reports point to all indications that the Government is working towards that end. Newspapers and other media outlets seem to be having a field day with the new atmosphere of press freedom never seen in the history of journalism in Sierra Leone. I was recently in Sierra Leone and so I witnessed some of it first hand.

You only need to look at some of the recent controversial, but largely contested, publications by the Democrat and Awareness Times newspapers (largely sympathetic to the former SLPP government now in the opposition) to see what I mean.

Take the Democrat newspaper report that attacked APC party National Secretary General Victor Foh, who is said to have played a leading role in the success of the ruling party in the last general elections, accusing him of pulling the strings in the ejection of late Hinga Norman’s family from their Government quarters. Foh’s name was cleared when a letter written by a US-based relative of Hinga Norman contested the article and quoted the late man’s wife as saying that Foh had nothing to do with it. That was settled without a fight from Foh.

Take Awareness Times’ recent publication attacking Vice President Sam Sumana for what it called reckless spending of over 80 million leones on the monthly special cleaning exercise. The VP’s office promptly responded with a press release debunking the report and putting the records straight with some statistical explanation. This too was settled without a fight. Under the former SLPP regime, editors of these papers and others would never have ventured to publish such articles without bracing for a fight under the Public Under Act.

Moreover, President Koroma recently responded to what he viewed as distortion of facts regarding his brother by some sections of the media, including some that are even sympathetic to his government, through some strongly worded State House press releases. This is what we expect from any head of state committed to free speech. One should expect that all his ministers and public officials will emulate this good practice.

So far the closest the Koroma government has come to clashing with the media over the use of the 1965 Public Order Act was the recent problem involving the Independent Observer Editor, Jonathan Leigh, who was charged to court through legal action by Transport Minister Kemoh Sesay for publishing that he was busy building two houses two months after taking office. This was regrettable because Kemoh Sesay could have settled that simply with a press release explaining how come he is building two houses at the same time, provided of course this is true, just two months after taking office, or he could have taken the matter to the Independent Media Commission to seek retraction with an apology.

But even there let us look at what really happened. Jonathan Leigh was arrested and taken to court under a bench warrant because he allgedly refused to respect the summons to appear before the court. No matter what, journalists must respect the courts. This is normal practice even here in the West where free press is perceived to be the norm rather than the exception. Besides, the fact that Jonathan Leigh was allowed to go home on bail should be seen as a good sign that the Criminal libel law was at least relaxed compared to what obtained in the past.

On top of all this, it was really disappointing from a journalistic point of view to see the editor retracting the story which meant that he was not really sure about his report or did not have all the facts or evidence. This is bad journalism and must be totally discouraged because it will only help to feed into the growing public distrust of journalists, and in a way play into the hands of the government that may be forced to rethink its pledge to review the 1965 Public Order Act by way of getting rid of the criminal libel law.

One would therefore understand the frustration and determination of the Transport Minister to pursue the matter now that the editor has back-pedalled. It is interesting to follow this developing story to see what the honourable minister will get out of it beyond the retraction and apology if the publication is eventually proved wrong. That said I think it was improper, from the point of view of a minister of a government that has pledged to get rid of the criminal libel law, to issue the threat reported by Paris-based press freedom watch dog Reporters Without Borders that he will ensure that the editor is sent to jail.

But this isolated incident in a rather increasing maze of others that saw government’s display of tolerance and avoidance of the use of the criminal libel law cannot in any way be said to be the immediate motivating factor of court action by SLAJ and my two colleagues, Olu Gordon and Dr Julius Spencer. I suspect that their motives could well be beyond the fight for press freedom in Sierra Leone, otherwise I see no reason why they could not exercise just a little bit of patience and see what President Koroma and his government are up to regarding the process of repealing the criminal libel law. At this early stage one would expect a concerted media campaign by SLAJ and all press freedom loving journalists in Sierra Leone and the Diaspora to urge the government to speed up the process of repealing this bad law. If all indications point to a failure of this strategy then considering a court action at some point would not be said to be inappropriate.

Sinister Motives?

In my opinion the attempt by SLAJ, Olu Gordon and Spencer to jump the gun and resort to legal action when the ideal governmental institutions responsible for the review of the 1965 Public Order Act are busy looking into it, and when there has been no government announcement of a change of course, could be possibly be informed by all or one of the following:

- A diabolic move to hijack the praise of an eventual repeal of the criminal libel law from the APC government;

- An attempt to distract the governmental process already put in motion to repeal this bad law;

- An attempt to provoke the government to react in such a way as to undermine its human rights credentials;

- An attempt to solicit huge funds from international press freedom campaign organisations in the name of fighting for press freedom; and

- An attempt to cover up some of the violations of other people’s rights by two of the plaintiffs, Olu Gordon and Spencer.

If the SLAJ president and these two colleagues were that genuine to fight for the repeal of this bad press law why did they fail to do this when the SLPP government, which is on record to have committed the most serious press freedom violations in the history of Sierra Leone, was in power?

Why did they decide to resort to court action against a government that is not only trying to settle down less than six months after taking over, and not only one that has also so far demonstrated an unprecedented tolerance for press freedom, but one that has put in motion the process of repealing the very bad law they are seeking to get rid of.

I think new SLAJ President Philip Neville is making a very sad mistake by allowing colleagues like Olu Gordon and Dr Spencer to manipulate him into rushing into such court action.

While I sympathise with Olu Gordon for his persecution under this Public Order Act during SLPP rule, I would like to urge him to remember that what goes around comes around. He should remember how he tried but failed to have me arrested in 1998 at the Senegal International airport in Dakar and extradited to Sierra Leone to face trial under this same bad Public Order Act because he wanted to satisfy his former SLPP masters.

That was the time when some of my colleagues, including I.B. Kargbo, Gipu Felix George, Hilton Fyle, and I were unfortunately branded by the SLPP government as ‘junta collaborators’ for simply calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and refusing to support the Nigerian-led military intervention.

And that was the time when my two colleagues at the then Expo Times, Gibril Gbanabome Koroma and Charles Abayomi Roberts, and I were facing trial for alleged spying under the 1965 Public Order Act , a trial that was interrupted by the AFRC junta coup in May 1997. Now seeing Olu championing the cause of press freedom through a court action such as this makes me sick as I suspect some very sinister motives lurking in the background.

For Dr Julius Spencer the least said the better. In fact going by his role in the many human rights violations committed by the controversial so-called Democracy FM 98.1 radio during AFRC junta rule and in the wake of the transition to Tejan Kabbah’s restoration to power in 1998, and his high-handed handling of the independent press when he was Information minister under SLPP rule, Spencer’s role as one of the plaintiffs in this case against the new APC government is not only likely to weaken the SLAJ case for a repeal of this bad press law but has the potential to further expose the sinister motives of the court action itself. You only need to recall some of the following key findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to understand where I am coming from:

Propaganda by Radio Democracy 98.1 FM

280. The Sierra Leone Government in exile, with support from the British Government, set up the radio station 98.1 FM at Lungi to counteract propaganda from the AFRC-controlled SLBS radio station. The radio station did much to lift the morale of the public and generate resistance against the military junta.

281. The Commission finds that at times broadcasts by Radio Democracy 98.1 FM were inflammatory and created the context for mob justice, in which human rights violations and abuses were carried out against civilians who were alleged, often wrongly, to have collaborated with the AFRC.

282. The Commission finds that messages contained in broadcasts by Radio Democracy served to enrage and exacerbate the brutal backlash carried out by the group led by the AFRC warlord, SAJ Musa. AFRC commanders ordered their men to commit heinous violations and abuses against civilians, including amputations, to avenge the propaganda directed against them.

Mob Justice

291. The Commission finds that the mob justice prevalent during the transitional period between the ECOMOG intervention of 12 February 1998 and the restoration of President Kabbah on 10 March 1998 was not sufficiently quelled or controlled. Many civilians were executed arbitrarily on allegations of so called “collaboration” while many others were beaten up, harassed or molested on similar grounds. A clear message or other assertion of control by the Government or ECOMOG may have prevented such violations.

As the then station manager of this FM radio, Dr Spencer may be worried that relatives of some of those murdered in the wake of the madness he helped incite may one day pressurize the new government to bring him and others to book for their role in crimes against humanity. This is particularly so when most of those then murdered, mostly by burning, following repeated announcements on that radio of their names as being marked for death for allegedly collaborating with the AFRC junta, the likes of Sheik Mushtaba, Alhaji Musa Kabia and Sakomah, were strong APC supporters and politicians.

As a matter of fact had God not been with me during that terrible period in our country, I could have suffered a similar fate as I was number 54 on that DEATH LIST. For all you know Spencer may be using this case to launch a preemptive attack on the APC government before it comes after him.

He is however oblivious of the fact that this new APC leadership is not out to settle scores with anybody. It could well be that he is trying to provoke something from the APC government. How, for instance, can he explain why he did not start his new newspaper (Premier) under the former SLPP government when the use of the Public Order Act was at its highest. After all, his persecution under the Public Order Act came under the NPRC junta and not the APC, and if he thinks he was that genuine why did he not bring legal action against the NPRC or SLPP that were there before the return of the APC.

The same goes to Richie Olu Gordon. The case of persecution he cited in their case against the government happened when the SLPP was in power and so why wait until they are gone before rushing to court. This verges on some grotesque agenda.

SLAJ President Phillip Neville too is not above reproach here; his two cases of persecution cited happened under the SLPP and not the APC, and so why did he not take such legal action then when he was SLAJ VP or as editor of his newspaper.

In any case I don’t think his retraction of the Ghadafi and the controversial Libyan rice story involving former President Kabbah thus clearing the name of the latter would help his citing of that case here since it smacks of reckless journalism to rush to press with a serious allegation like that involving a head of state only to go back on YOUR words and apologize. This type of journalism will only help the argument of those who may want to see the criminal libel law still in force.

Criticism of premature court action not to be taken out of context

Trying to critically analyze the action of my colleagues in bringing the government to court at this stage should not be taken out of context to mean that I am supporting the continuation of the criminal libel law. If anything, going by my history of persecution as a journalist in Sierra Leone between 1992 and 1998 mostly under this notorious criminal libel law, I have every reason to be in the forefront in calling for its repeal. I just think that it is fair to give the new government some time to go about the process of repealing this law rather than hiding behind some less obvious motives that may end up taking us back to square one.

It is good to remember that the new government inherited a judicial system that needs very serious overhaul and so if you don’t want to make mistakes it is better to be slow but sure. Amnesty International recently released a damning report attacking the slow judicial process in Sierra Leone largely due to under staffing causing overcrowding of the country’s prison that holds more remanded than convicted prisoners.

It is good to appreciate that while speeding the repealing of the criminal libel law is a priority there are other priorities that also demand urgent attention. Consider also the increasing crime rate in the country, with nine high profile gruesome murders in five years, the latest being the murder of a popular Fulla businessman. Several other murders go unreported.

The police and the ministry of justice have a lot of work in their hands to restore sanity and make Sierra Leone a safe place for everybody. But of course that is no excuse for the Law Reform Commission, the Judiciary, Parliament and all those entrusted with the task of reviewing the 1965 Public Order Act so as to decriminalize libel to drag their feet. I think they should make this one of their benchmarks and put a reasonable time limit to deliver it. After all the GREAT BUMBUNA RETREAT was all about President Koroma having the opportunity to remind his ministers and other top government officials to deliver their set benchmarks within a given time.

It is for instance improper to order the invitation of a newspaper publisher to the police for questioning for some caricatured images that allegedly ridiculed the president when for all we know a process is underway to rid our constitution of that power to do so. But if, as the AwarenessTimes Publisher Dr Sylvia Blyden said in a subsequent article published in her newspaper, the president and some of his top officials called her later to say they knew nothing about her invitation to the CID nor had the president ordered it, is anything to go by, then it stands to reason that there is indeed a problem in the chain of command that the government should quickly try to address.

There are some people out there who are certainly not helping the situation. There is however an upside in the swift presidential intervention to put the records straight which will certainly cast some shadows on the sensational BBC report regarding Dr Blyden’s so-called arrest. She must count herself lucky that she was only invited to the CID for questioning and not in fact detained with common criminals hence the reason why she was able to leave without being intercepted by the police.

At least she managed to escape pretty much unhurt by the very criminal libel law she has ironically been vehemently campaigning for to stay in the law books. I only hope that she would learn from this experience and remember that those who live in glass houses must not learn to throw stones. I am sure if she had gone through just a pinch of what some of us went through under that wicked law she definitely would have had a rethink of her position.

Working with the media without the criminal libel law

I would like to urge the government to continue its tolerance of criticism and its use of its own information apparatus to not only do damage control but to be more pro-active in communicating with the people. President Koroma has so far demonstrated that he is thick-skinned which is good for the nation. It is good that he did not take the caricatured portrayal of his image in Blyden’s newspaper seriously as some of our politicians did in the past.

As a leader you must be ready to face things like this from the media, particularly those that do not see eye to eye with you. Besides it is good to encourage divergent, and sometimes critical, views about you as a leader. That is the essence of democracy. I would like to encourage all ministers and top government officials to follow the good practice of the president.

Information is power and so I would encourage the government not to allow the propaganda initiative to be seized from it by the opposition SLPP government who may be bent on reversing all the gains made so far by the new APC government by way of scoring some political points ahead of the local elections. Government ministers and other top officials must be ready to be thick-skinned when they accept to serve in these positions.

They should be ready to accept criticisms that are justified and use the Independent Media Commission (IMC) rather than the courts to challenge what they perceive to be unjustified or defamatory criticism. Government must use media outlets sympathetic to its new vision for the country based on an agenda of change to counter negative propaganda and embark on a more pro-active communication strategy.

They should try as best as possible to avoid over-reacting to perceived negative propaganda. It is better to react with strongly worded press statements and take the matter to the IMC if necessary instead of using state apparatus to coerce the media. It must always try to be on top of the situation as far as the propaganda war is concerned. A government that has democratic credentials must be ready to face and manage criticisms without undermining those credentials. A government that is truly ready to fight corruption and promote good governance must be ready to work with the media.

Government must try to make the IMC more autonomous so as to make journalists have confidence in its decisions. The IMC still faces crisis of confidence because some of its past decisions were under SLPP rule challenged to be biased in favour of some government officials and some well placed members of the public.

The IMC must work closely with SLAJ to come up with codes of conduct for journalism practice in Sierra Leone. Journalists have the responsibility to carry out their functions within the well-defined parameters of their profession. They must work in the public interest and not allow partisan interests to cloud their determination to practice good journalism. It is really strange to see the IMC and some few journalists campaigning against the repeal of the criminal libel law.

The findings of the survey conducted by the IMC to gauge public opinion under SLPP rule about whether or not to repeal the criminal libel law were rendered problematic by most journalists because of the poor methodology that was used. I saw this as part of the wider SLPP ploy to always make journalists look like public enemies. I think it is in the interest of all journalists and the IMC for the criminal libel law to be repealed. This will give the IMC more work to do as most people would like turn to it first to lodge complaints instead of going to the courts to file civil libel cases.

I would like to conclude by calling on the Minister of Justice Serry Kamal to fast-track the review of the 1965 Public Order Act so as to rid our constitution of the criminal libel law that is only there to breed bad blood between the media and the government making the watch dog role of the latter, which is a sine qua non for democracy and good governance, a rather tall order to achieve.

This will help boost the government’s image domestically and internationally as a true respecter of the fundamental human rights of its people. This will make SLAJ’s case against it completely irrelevant and you will go down in history as the Justice Minister who made the repeal of the criminal libel law that has been there since colonial rule happen at last.

Ghana did it recently and we have all seen how that country has dramatically surged ahead. We cannot afford to lose the momentum of tolerance so far encouraged by president Koroma; we must win the battle for press freedom without which our democracy will be sterile.

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