From the Editor’s Keyboard

American Envoy to Sierra Leone Speaks

13 March 2006 at 01:05 | 899 views

This week, we publish a very important speech recently delivered in Freetown by Thomas Hull(photo), the US ambassador to Sierra Leone. We believe the ambassador grappled with many issues that are of extreme importance to the government and people of Sierra Leone.

Building Issue-based Coalitions as an Effective Strategy for Protecting Freedom of Expression in Sierra Leone

By Thomas N. Hull
Ambassador of the United States of America

At the Global Rights Seminar on Developing Coalitions for Legislative Advocacy, January 17, 2006,Freetown, Sierra Leone

There have been many positive developments in Sierra Leone since the end of the civil conflict that brutalized this country. Among those is the progress that Sierra Leone has made in democratization. Although the concept of democracy can be stated simply as “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” achieving democratic governance that truly serves the people is more complex involving civic education, public engagement, institution building, and professional training, not only of government officials, but also of those, like many of you, who advocate for equality, for reform and for justice.

Good governance involves more than good government. Proper performance by public officials and civil servants is obviously essential, but equally fundamental is the involvement of concerned citizens in the civic life of the country. Two vitally important elements of civil society are strongly represented in this Global Rights seminar today: non-governmental organizations and the independent mass media. Another important element would be academia.

NGO’s should monitor government performance and provide services, but most importantly should be a voice for the voiceless in society, bringing issues to public attention that might otherwise be ignored. The independent mass media is another pillar of democracy that should direct attention to important issues, expose incompetence and malfeasance, and serve as a conscience for the nation. Academia should be able to analyze independently and objectively about all aspects of society, offer solutions, and also give the next generation of Sierra Leonean leaders the capability to think critically to improve the country.

Many new democracies have the appearance of democracy having elected public officials representing political parties to positions in national legislatures and local councils. Most certainly those are important elements in the development of democracy, but true democracy requires more than the forms of democracy. It must also respect the norms of democracy including majority rule, rights of minorities, the rule of law, and basic freedoms such as the rights to dissent, to worship freely, to associate openly with others, and to protect individual privacy.

One fundamental democratic freedom, which is the subject of this Global Rights seminar, is freedom of expression. This is a very broad freedom of which freedom of the press is just one aspect. It also includes academic freedom, artistic freedom, religious freedom, and, indeed, political freedom to cite but a few examples. On the whole, Sierra Leone enjoys considerable freedom of expression, but there is an important area of particular concern that is the focus of this seminar, namely the criminal defamation and seditious libel provisions of the Public Order Act of 1965 that can constrain freedom of the press as well as other elements of free expression.

Without dwelling on the origins of the Public Order Act, I think it is fair to say that the libel provisions of the law are anachronistic in the context of modern jurisprudence. The law has been invoked rarely in recent years, but when there have been detentions and convictions, international outrage, detrimental to Sierra Leone’s image, has followed precisely because seditious libel is perceived by defenders of press freedom as a tool for media suppression, and not as a means for individual protection. I am not a lawyer, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the legal aspects of individual court cases, but I think the consequences of these cases should lead us all to question the value of this aspect of the law.

Civil libel laws and their financial penalties have supplanted seditious libel laws with their criminal penalties in most democratic societies. The presumption in those countries is that a civil verdict and a financial judgment will provide justice to the victim and will be a deterrent against further defamation by the perpetrator.

Is that presumption applicable to Sierra Leone? Will journalists who are quick to accuse others of violating the law respect the rule of law themselves? Can the judiciary be relied upon to dispense timely justice? Those are questions that you must grapple with in this seminar if you are to propose a modification of or a workable alternative to the Public Order Act.

The challenge you face is not merely to repeal a law, but to confront the issue of journalistic ethics in Sierra Leone. Although Sierra Leone has many highly professional journalists, it only takes few inferior editors and reporters with low standards to ruin the reputation of the profession. In the extreme, there is “checkbook journalism” that extorts from individuals whose reputations are unjustifiably threatened by pure fiction. More common is the defamatory article or malicious commentary that impugns individual reputations based on rumors and misinformation that could be avoided if the journalist made a good faith effort to seek the truth by cross-checking allegations to find the facts. I have heard journalists say that they publish half-truths to flush out the whole truth, as if the end somehow justifies the unethical means.

Those journalists who abuse freedom of the press do a disservice not only to their profession, but also to democracy. For the independent media to serve its rightful role as a pillar of democracy it must be credible. As a public official representing my own government, I frequently make the point that my credibility as an ambassador and that of my country depend on my integrity. The same principle applies to each and every journalist with respect to the credibility of the free press in this nascent democracy.

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that even in the best of circumstances not every journalist will adhere to the ethical standards of the profession. Only last week a local journalist commenting on the history of journalism in Sierra Leone lamented that the media had attracted “people who had no business in the profession other than using it to penetrate the corridors of power and/or to make quick money. The quest for money and other favors soon eroded ethics and professionalism.” While it may be small consolation for Sierra Leoneans, the reality is that this situation exists to some degree everywhere. Independent media, including in the United States, are not only pillars of democracy, but also commercial enterprises that sometimes succumb to sensationalism and worse to gain a edge in a highly competitive market.

If we assume that Sierra Leonean journalism can be improved but not perfected, where does this leave us with libel? Clearly there must be a legal framework to protect the rights of the individual victim who had been maliciously defamed. That framework must be workable; it must be fair; and it must be insulated from the potential for political manipulation and abuse.

This is an issue that cannot and should not be resolved by the media and government alone. The outcome has enormous implications for society at large and for the future of your democracy. Recognizing that confrontation will not yield results, President Kabbah, as I recall, issued a challenge last year for proposals for alternatives to the seditious libel provisions of the Public Order Act. This Global Rights seminar should be seen as a catalyst for civil society, including the media, to respond constructively to that challenge. You must develop a vision for the change that you seek. This must be a vision in the national interest that rises above party politics. You must be persuasive advocates for that change to overcome the inevitable resistance that you will encounter in some quarters. You must enlist government institutions and officials as your partners in a cooperative spirit. In this respect you must consider how you will engage the Parliament, judiciary, and commissions, such as the Independent Media Commission and Law Reform Commission, so they will see change in the law as being in their own interest. I am confident that if you can find a just solution that satisfies the President’s challenge, you can ultimately gain the full support of government.

The passage last year of the Trafficking in Persons law might serve as a model for how to develop a new libel law. While the situations are not precisely parallel, trafficking was addressed as a critically important issue that needed creative and immediate legislative attention. A coalition of stakeholders was formed to develop and advocate for the law. These included civil society NGO’s concerned with the rights of women and children, religious groups, international bodies such as UNICEF, and government offices with a vested interest such as the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Sierra Leone Police. The Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights consulted with civil society in preparing the legislation, and the law itself provides for an Inter-Ministerial Council on Trafficking in Persons that includes representatives from civil society. Although the council has not met yet, I expect it will do so very soon, to consider full implementation of the law.

You might also consider how to resolve libel disputes outside the courts. I find that many Sierra Leoneans feel that they do not have access to justice. People have found that lawyers are too expensive or in rural areas unavailable; that the judicial process is too prolonged; and that justice simply does not prevail. Plaintiffs say that financial judgments are inadequate and often not paid, and that reputations are not salvaged.

Considering this situation, this seminar may want to propose extra-judicial options in addition to legislative reform. Compared with my experience in other African countries, I find that Sierra Leone has too few options for alternate dispute resolution, so that if disputes do not go to court, they are too often resolved violently. A professional organization like the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists or an autonomous government entity like the Independent Media Commission may be a model that could be adapted for alternative dispute resolution. Nobody wants to see the independent media compromised, but this is not a matter of self-censorship. This is a matter of justice, and justice must prevail if the larger interests of democracy are to be served. When the legitimate rights of the individual are protected, then democracy itself is validated and both the independent media and judiciary are themselves further legitimized and less vulnerable.

As you strategize on freedom of expression during this Global Rights seminar, I trust that those of you from civil society will also learn how to network in common cause on other issues in Sierra Leone that require reform to strengthen democracy, human rights, justice, and economic development. I have already cited Trafficking in Persons as an example that has recently been addressed. The Law Reform Commission has recommended, to give other examples, legislative initiatives on the on the status of women, particularly with respect to inheritance rights; on citizenship; and on land ownership in the provinces. All of those worthwhile initiatives could benefit from civil society advocacy whether by NGO’s or by mass media.

As I close, I want to underscore the importance of investigative journalism by the independent media to hold elected and appointed officials accountable. In a democracy, government has an obligation to be transparent in its conduct. In Sierra Leone, where corruption, abuse of power, and violence have plagued the country for decades, journalists have a particularly important role in aggressively exposing malfeasance to change the prevailing political culture. Freedom of the press provides this opportunity, but with freedom comes responsibility. If the media abuses its own power, it must likewise be held culpable and accountable to the people.

In this respect, it would be in the interest of both good governance and good journalism, if ministers and other senior officials were to engage proactively with the mass media to publicize their activities and to pre-empt misinformation. Editors and reporters should likewise be more pro-active in seeking accurate information. On a personal note, I want to urge editors and reporters to contact the Public Affairs Office of the American Embassy if you ever have questions about the activities of the American government in Sierra Leone. We will always be as forthcoming as we can within our legal constraints, such as those imposed by privacy laws. It is in our interest and yours that inaccuracies be avoided. I also make myself available to the media on appropriate topics.

I want to thank you for your attention and to wish all of you a most productive seminar. The topic that you are discussing and the principles that you will be developing have the potential to make a significant contribution to Sierra Leone’s democratization. Finally, I want to thank Global Rights both for sponsoring this event and for inviting me to join you today.

Source: US embassy website, Freetown, Sierra Leone