What has for decades seemed impossible for the media and journalism in the West African nation of Sierra Leone has finally become a pulsating reality as President Julius Maada Bio on October 28, 2020 officially assented a new law that repeals Criminal Libel.
The Presidential assent comes three months after the Parliament of Sierra Leone on July 23, 2020 unanimously approved the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020 and repealed the 1965 Public Order Act (POA) that criminalized libel and sedition.
Speaking during the official programme held at State House in Freetown to mark the formal repeal of the 1965 law, President Julius Maada Bio said he was delighted to have delivered on a key campaign promise
"As previous speakers have indicated, my Government made a firm manifesto commitment to repeal the 55-year-old criminal seditious libel law - (Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965). We followed through in cabinet and as a Government, we have made history. For more than half a century, we had a legislative and governance regime that criminalised journalism. Successive governments had failed to abolish this law that threatened civil liberties and had been abused over the course of half a century by successive governments."
The president added "Bad governments foster a climate of silence and fear. They prevent scrutiny of their tenure or their actions as leaders. But we have made a commitment to the people of Sierra Leone that we will foster a culture of good governance and accountability. We therefore made a firm commitment from the outset that we will remove all laws that chill free speech." President Bio said.
Sierra Leone is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of both which commit governments to uphold the right to free expression. Additionally, Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone guarantees press freedom and freedom of expression. In its annual reports, the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone has been recommending that the criminal libel law be expunged from the laws. The Constitutional Review Committee and the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of 2004 also strongly recommended for the Criminal Libel Law to be removed.
The repeal of the Criminal Libel Law has been enthusiastically welcomed by all the stakeholders. Former President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Umaru Fofana, who was among the key champions of the struggle to get the law repealed, wrote on his Facebook account "I am pleased to live to see this day. I feel like I have been born again. Thank you to all those who fought the good fight especially SLAJ and civil society. Thank you President Bio for this and to your information Minister for leading the process. Thank your parliament for legislating it. All four political parties in the House did great. I wish Richie Olu Gordon were alive to see this day"
President of Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla in his statement confessed that he still doesn't believe this is happening and heaped praises on President Bio.
"They say there is no courage without fear. As a politician I know that you [Mr. President] also share in the fear that this repeal might expose you to insults, abuse and vilification. But the fact that you have mustered the bravery to do it, shows me, that only a man who enters the military profession, knowing fully well, that he may have to go into battle, face bullets and bombs and may die, that can have the courage to do this, " SLAJ President said.
In an op-ed, the British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Simon Mustard, wrote; "It is a day that should be celebrated for media freedom and by all Sierra Leoneans. Congratulations to everyone involved in this great achievement.
The diplomat added "Experience from around the world shows that an independent media encourages greater investment, from home and overseas, as it gives investors access to accurate data and information. It also allows greater participation by the people in political and economic debate, which can inform and influence policy making."
MFWA welcomes this new development in the media landscape in Sierra Leone. We salute the untiring efforts of all journalists, media organisations and human rights activists who fought over the decades for the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law. The MFWA also commends the government of President Maada Bio for making good its promise to amend the Public Order Act to remove its repressive elements and promote press freedom and freedom of expression in Sierra Leone. We reiterate our call on the media in Sierra Leone to jealously guard the new-found freedom by demonstrating greater professionalism. The removal of this legal restraint should lead to noticeable improvement in the output of the media in terms of ensuring greater accountability, promoting citizens' participation in governance and generally focussing on the real issues that have direct bearing on the daily lives of the people.