The Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, has said that President Ernest Bai Koroma has disappointed the media on press freedom in the country.
“Successive governments have given us false hopes on the repeal of the criminal libel law. The politicians have lied to us. They have taken us to be big fools. President Koroma is our biggest disappointment. We had high hopes in him but he failed us woefully. So we will not trust any politician again, because when they get into office they forget about their promises,” said Nasralla.
Nasralla was speaking last Friday while formally launching a report on criminal defamation laws in Africa by PEN Sierra Leone at the SLAJ Harry Yansaneh Memorial Hall, Campbell Street, Freetown.
He recalled that before he was first elected President of the Republic in 2007, President Koroma was a staunch campaigner against criminal libel law in Sierra Leone, but when he became President he suddenly had a different view.
“When they are aspiring for political office they sing the repeal song along with the media, but when they eventually assume power politicians suddenly realize that the criminal libel law as contained in the 1965 Public Order Act is a fine law to gag the level of scrutiny of government and its officials by the media,” said Nasralla, adding that this time around they would not listen to any false promises from any politician.
Nasralla said SLAJ has been campaigning for the repeal of the criminal libel law for over 20 years now, noting that while most people think the law only affect journalists the reality is that it affects everybody, especially those who are engaged in the business of expression of views and opinions on issues- musicians, actors, playwrights, poets, story tellers, comedians, cartoonists, etc.
But for journalists particularly he said: “We have said it over and over again that the criminal libel law affects our work. It prevents us from going the extra mile to actually expose corrupt government officials. It discourages our female colleagues from aspiring for top positions in the media because they are afraid of going to jail. It discourages private sector investment in the media because the last thing business people want is to get in conflict with the government,” said Nasralla.
The SLAJ Secretary General, however, noted the strides made by SLAJ and its partners- including the Government- in recent times to repeal the law. He cited the National Symposium on the Reform of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965 on 27th September, 2016 at the Miatta Conference Hall which brought together major stakeholders - SLAJ, IMC, MRCG, the Sierra Leone Police, the Sierra Leone Bar Association, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Officers Department, the Justice Sector Development Programme, Ministry of Information and Communications, and civil society- to discuss the way forward. He said the consensus reached at the symposium was that the criminal libel law was a bad law and must be repealed.
“We understand very well that to change a law like this is a process, and it involves institutional contributions. It involves going through stages, including Cabinet and Parliament. We have gone as far as developing a Cabinet Paper but what seems to be lacking is the political will, which has to come from His Excellency the President. Given that his final term in office ends in a couple of months as we go into general elections in March 2018, it’s apparent that this is as far as we can go under the current government administration. So the law remains, and we are concerned that the Government will use it against not only critical journalists but even against rival politicians,” said Nasralla.
Furthermore, Nasralla said there are two concerns directed at the media. One, he said, is what was SLAJ doing to deal with its errant members and two, what would be the replacement for the criminal libel law?
“In my opinion these concerns should not be stumbling blocks to the reform of the criminal libel law,” said Nasralla. “Apart from the Independent Media Commission Code of Practice, we have our own internal regulatory systems. We have the SLAJ Disciplinary and Complaints Committee which handles issues relating to errant members and we have the SLAJ Code of Ethics which guides professional practice and conduct. The IMC also handles media complaints and lately there’s been a decline in the number of complaints coming from the public. This is a clear demonstration that we are moving towards responsible practice,” said Nasralla, adding that the public should note that their call for the repeal of the criminal libel law should not be misinterpreted as a license to assassinate people’s characters or reputation.
On the issue of a replacement, Nasralla said all they have been asking for was for the criminal aspect to be taken off the libel.“Nobody should be sent to jail and tagged criminal for merely making a mistake when expressing their views or commenting on issues,” said Nasralla. “In all professions- medical, law, engineering- practitioners make mistakes all the time. We believe that the more freedom we get the more responsible we become. In the absence of a criminal libel law, there’s the civil libel law which we think can be a perfect replacement but that also should be reviewed, especially the aspect of fines.”
Meanwhile, Nasralla commended PEN Sierra Leone for putting the report together and encourage them to continue to be part of the alliance advocating for the repeal of the criminal libel law in Sierra Leone.
The report, titled: Stifling Dissent, Impeding Accountability: Criminal Defamation Laws in Africa, highlights that criminal sanctions deter media investigations into and reporting of issues governments consider sensitive or embarrassing, such as high-level corruption, official malpractice or law breaking, thereby facilitating official secrecy and undermining accountability.