By Thomas Vandi Gbow
The Parliament of Sierra Leone made history last Thursday 23rd July, 2020, when its lawmakers finally repealed Part V of the infamous Public Order Act of 1965 that criminalized libel law at a time when the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) mouthpiece – We Yone Newspaper – was a vociferous critic of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) regime of Sir Albert Margai, who acceded to power following the death in 1964 of the first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, his elder brother.
Though the extremely unpleasant law was used against the APC which in no uncertain term criticized it when in opposition, the party deliberately used the draconian seditious libel law against the media, especially the print media.
Consequently, many journalists were jailed under the seditious libel law; some lucky ones fled the country; whilst many proprietors or publishers shut down their newspapers and printing press for fear of their lives.
Since then, every regime in Sierra Leone, whether democratically elected or a military junta, had used the criminal libel law to muzzle the media and even jail or detain journalists who criticize or publish critical articles against those regimes. Many journalists had been victims of the criminal libel law, including myself, Sulaiman Massaquoi (Buzay Bu) and my late colleague and brother, Ahmed Bob Kanneh, when we were detained in fetid police cells for one week in May 1999, for publishing a news story in The New Storm headlined “Maskita Snubs Mojakpero”. General Mojakpero was the Commander of ECOMOG in Sierra Leone and during our out-of-court plea with the late Uncle Solomon Ekuma Berewa, who was the then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, he told our parents and relatives outright that we were at liberty to criticize him, the late former President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah or the SLPP Government, but they would not hesitate a bit to imprison us if we continued to write critical articles against ECOMOG.
Many other Sierra Leonean journalists have their own unpleasant stories to tell about the obnoxious criminal libel law, including my senior colleague, Paul Mohamed Kamara of For di People newspaper, who was incarcerated twice at the Pademba Road Male Correctional Centre during the Kabbah administration. Therefore, it was against the obnoxious nature of the criminal libel law that the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) had over the decades advocated incessantly for the expunging of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965.
And being very mindful of the fact that freedom of expression and of the press was not guaranteed under the draconian law, dozens of presidential candidates in the Second Republic had always made a chorus of promises to expunge it from the law books should they be elected President. It is only now that President Dr. Julius Maada Bio, who in one of his manifesto promises made a firm commitment to repealing the more than half century criminal and seditious libel law, has fulfilled the promise last Thursday, when lawmakers unanimously repealed the 55-year-old obnoxious law.
While rejoicing over the historic repeal of the seditious criminal libel law by our lawmakers, I should personally commend President Dr. Julius Maada Bio for taking Sierra Leone yet to another democratic level by ensuring the long-awaited repeal which countries like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and other democratic African countries had done many years ago. Though our politicians knew the law was very evil, they used it deliberately to muzzle the press because they wouldn’t want the latter to expose their countless skeletons in their cupboards, or to expose what they were hiding from the public. But with the political will to finally repeal the infamous Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965, President Maada Bio has proved to Sierra Leoneans and the rest of the world that he is a righteous national leader who doesn’t renege on his promises despite he’s yet to fulfill all his manifesto promises. Even so, based on what he has done in two years, one would surmise that by the end of his first term, the President would have fulfilled most of his promises if not all.
My special commendation for the repeal of the seditious criminal libel law by Parliament goes to my erstwhile SLAJ President, Umaru Fofana, who in his tenure courageously challenged the legality of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965 in the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone during the Koroma administration, when we had another former SLAJ President, Hon, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, as Minister of Information and Communications. As expected, though, the matter was thrown out of court but the fact remained that Umaru Fofana had the courage and tenacity to take the bull by the horns. It took him the courage to cry for press freedom whilst some of our senior colleagues now clamouring for commendation too were in their comfort zones looking at their colleagues from afar.
Verily, with the repealing of the seditious criminal libel law comes the dawn of a new era with great responsibility for journalists. The freedom of expression and of the press we are now rejoicing over must go with great responsibility in carrying out our duties of informing, educating, entertaining and even advocating for society when and where necessary. I will therefore implore my colleagues to do away with unprofessionalism, such as arm-chair journalism and blackmail, and do the needful so that they will not fall foul of the law.
Let’s also hope that the repealing of the seditious criminal libel law will attract better investment and growth in the media industry which prominent investors in the country had shied away from over the decades due to the obnoxious law. I believe this new development has paved the way for more investments in the media and this will help mitigate the penury-stricken nature of the Sierra Leone media landscape.