Sierra Leone’s harsh libel laws

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This story in Awoko newspaper inspired me to write a column against Sierra Leone’s criminal libel law the next day. On the right, Awoko editor in chief Kelvin Lewis, also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, is at a detention center where a journalist was released after a weekend in jail

Sierra Leone’s libel laws are always mentioned in world press freedom rankings as a major reason why the country has such a mediocre score.

There are two types of libel laws on the books, and for years journalists here have been calling to an end to the one that makes seditious libel a criminal offence. As far as I understand (and I could be a little off as I’m not a law person), this law makes it easy for journalists to be put in jail for “libel” — and libel is easy to prove. In practice seditious libel can mean writing something a government official doesn’t like. The ridiculous justification is that it’s libel because it would put the government in contempt of the public. And even worse, according to one commentator I read, truth is not a defense (I know it isn’t a bulletproof defense in the US either, but it does help). In fact, the greater the truth, the bigger the libel, because it would put the government even more in contempt of the people.

This law dates back to around 1700 and it’s essentially a remnant of the libel law Britain used to have back then,  designed to protect powerful people from criticism. Sierra Leone’s version was modified slightly into the Public Order Act of 1965, which is what journalists here want reformed.

I don’t want to delve into the legal details, but the effect, my colleagues told me, is that journalists are often detained over a weekend after committing “libel,” the idea being that this will teach them a lesson. And it can be worse. A man was jailed last year for implying on the social networking site WhatsApp that the president had killed someone, and for calling him a “wounded beast.” Imagine if anyone who made some unsubstantiated comment comment about Obama on Facebook or Twitter, or even talked about people killed by drone strikes, was immediately imprisoned. In 2013, two editors were arrested for comparing President Koroma to a rat.

My colleagues say that journalists here want the criminal libel law to be changed to a civil one (like in the United States), so that the penalties would be fines instead of jail.

During the four weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen at least two statements from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in newspapers calling for a change in the Public Order Act, and a few op-eds saying the same. So the column I wrote isn’t anything new, but I thought I should use my platform to add to the voices calling for an end to the law.

I always knew I would eventually do this column, but what prompted it was a story the previous day about a journalist who was detained over the weekend for asking a question a government official was not fond of. He was also randomly held on bail 20 times higher than normal. Awoko editor-in-chief Kelvin Lewis, who is also president of SLAJ, can be seen in a photo picking him up at the detention center. You can read a speech Lewis gave on World Press Freedom Day earlier this year here.

Here’s my column:

A Sierra Leonean journalist was detained last weekend because he asked a question a government official didn’t like. As Awoko reported on Tuesday, journalist Sam Lahai asked the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, “how Mr. Sengu Koroma’s work as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs relates to the running of the Kenema District Council to the extent of summoning the Kenema City Council’s Chief Administrator…to his house, and threatening them with police arrest if they fail to obey.” For this, he was held in a detention center for two days and released under a bail amount 20 times higher than the normal maximum bail, according to lawyers.

As much as I and my journalism classmates back in the United States worry about the future of the field we want to enter, and sometimes gripe about the challenges of getting enough experience, we’re some of the luckiest journalists in the world.

I know this because, unlike my colleagues at Awoko, us American journalism students don’t have to work under the shadow of Sierra Leone’s cruel criminal libel laws, which should have no place in a modern democracy. These 300-year-old laws were introduced to Sierra Leone by the British, but they’ve long since been repealed in Britain. The versions of them that survived in the United States, another former British colony, have since been transformed into something far more protective of freedom of the press.

You can read the rest here.

 

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