Free Speech and Politics in Sierra Leone

4 March 2008 at 06:08 | 30392 views

By Alieu Iscandari, USA.

Folks, over the past week, there has been a lot of talk about pictures of the president appearing in some opposition newspapers, depicting him with "horns", distorted face, and hanging upside down, and pictures of the President hung on the Bo town clock tower being defaced by vandals. This has led to an uproar amongst supporters of the APC with its subsequent conundrum in Bo Town.

In democratic countries where Free speech is enshrined in the constitution of the country, political speech receives the highest protection. It is my opinion that pictures depicting caricatures of the president is Free speech and should remain undisturbed. I further opine that the defacing of the picture of the President in BO is free speech subject to the applicable criminal laws such as vandalism, criminal mischief, and restitution should be available to the state. It should be the Law that if a person in public decides to cut up the picture of the president as an expression of his opposition to the president, that should be protected speech. Also cartoons and caricatures of the president should be constitutionally protected speech entitled to the highest form of protection. However where a picture of the President is defaced while it is hung on a public place such as the Bo clock tower, then the crime of vandalism or criminal mischief or trespass has been committed and the state can take punitive actions against the perpetrator.

In fact we must not punish the act but must put limitations on it. Where the need to freely express oneself crosses the line of criminality, then the criminal aspect of it should be punished without precluding the free expression of political speech. For example if one chooses to throw water on the bust of the president on display at the National museum, or chooses to tear or besmear the picture of the president, then the correct thing to do is to bring that person to the courts of justice, charge him or her with the crime of Criminal Mischief, or vandalism. Upon conviction, the person would have to pay a fine based on the criminal conviction and pay restitution. Restitution could come in the form of payment for the replacement cost of the picture if damaged and any other costs appurtenant to placing the picture back in the same place where it was prior to the act of vandalism taking place.

The President I am sure understands that although he is a man of GOD, he is not God. He was voted in by the people of sierra leone to lead the country. The buck stops with him and he is responsible for any acts done in his name or in the party’s name.

Very recently the issue arose about the Presidents brother being involved in the act of assault and battery upon the person of another. It was even alleged that the personal vehicle of the president was involved in the so called attack. I must confess that I have met the Presidents brothers on a few occasions and they do not strike me as people with a violent streak. In fact, when I met these brothers of the president I dare say that there demeanor was exactly that of the president which I would describe as quiet Assurance. Thus I had doubts about the story. Now assuming the story is true, then it is imperative that the president ORDER his attorney general to immediately prepare charges against his brother and bring him to court. If on the other hand the story is false which I suspect it is, then to ascribe acts of criminality against the person of someone who is not so, is prima facie evidence of Defamation. The response should be that the offending news papers must be taken to task and charges brought against them in CIVIL court. A judgement sufficient to pay the victims, for the defamation should be obtained and enforced. That’s how you do it in democracies.

The letter from the Minister of Information to the offending newspaper is in poor taste and it brings back memories of authoritarianism which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and like minded people.

What the APC MUST do is to create an environment where free speech would be nurtured within certain limitations, expand on our democracy by taking its message to the public, encourage robust public debate on the issues and stop being so secretive about matters which should be made public. The accusations made against the APC with regards to the incident at Brookfields, are serious allegations which must be countered publicly in order to dispel the notion that the party condones violence, a notion which is not that far removed from its alleged past history. The allegations made against APC youth in BO must be countered publicly and an investigation done to ascertain the truth. If the APC fails to address these issues in an open and transparent manner, it would leave itself vulnerable to ragtag sheets masquerading as opposition news papers, who would seize any opportunity to gain propaganda chips to use against the party.

It is also my understanding that the resident Minister southern province the honorable Musa Tarawalie, had led a so called delegation to protest the act of vandalism. It is reported that this so called delegation eventually became unruly and a riot ensued. It is about time that the house parliament gets involved and issue a summons to the Resident Minister Southern Province to appear before a select parliamentary committee in order to determine his role in the Bo Situation. This should be a must. If the behavior of the resident Minister was antithetical to the observance of good order and civility then Parliament must make recommendations to the President on the issue of whether or not the Resident Minister should continue to serve this president.

I am a firm supporter of the APC and believe in the goals and vision of Ernest Koroma. Before he became President I looked him in the eye and expressed my position on these emerging issues. His response while looking me in the eye convinced me that he was the man of my choice. I have also been a victim of APC hooliganism, when in 1973, my father who owned a Black and red colored Opel record, had it painted green after an accident. He, then the area engineer of Port Loko district was accused of being an SLPP sympathizer. This was after the One party state had been declared by Siaka Stevens. One evening as my mother, my grand mother, my cousin Ade, our watch man (The great Kolleh Gbankay) and I were sitting outside enjoying the evening breeze, three trucks filled with "APC Youths" appeared on the very long driveway singing and telling us that they wanted my father’s head. I remember it very well like it was just yesterday. My father luckily had gone to a meeting of area engineers in Makeni and was not at home. I shudder to think what would have happened if he had been home. This is why my support for the APC comes with reservations as to its past conduct. It is in the interest of all of us who support the APC to ensure that Ernest’s vision for sierra leone does not become obliterated by violence caused by our own supporters whether or not such violence is in retaliation to provocation from SLPP supporters.

I am surprised that the APC has not come up with a public denial of these events or an outcry and a decry of these events. It is in all of our interests to support this President and his vision and we must not allow anyone within our ranks to derail his vision for a better sierra leone.

The fact is that this President and his administration is under attack from the opposition who would do anything to create negative propaganda which would diminish the good works that he plans for sierra leone. It is our duty as Sierra Leoneans to rally behind our president and our nation, particularly during the embryonic stages of this administration. We owe sierra leone that duty to Stand by our Leader. Ernest Koroma is not beyond reproach but lets give him a chance to settle down to the business of governing without the unnecessary interruptions and disruptions of violence and strife. The president must be willing to issue a stern statement to his own supporters that he will not tolerate any violence initiated by them against anyone. If his supporters care about him they will be so advised. The legacy of this president is too important to the History of Sierra Leone to allow his vision to be trivialized by wanton violence.