Salone News

Has the Mayor Committed “Defamatory Libel”?

23 January 2007 at 00:35 | 468 views

Commentary

By Oswald Hanciles, Freetown

The Sierra Leone Court Monitoring Programme (SLCMP)
sent me a letter dated January 13, 2007, to serve as a
panelist in a panel discussion on the topic; “Will
Decriminalizing Libel Law Guarantee Free Speech in a
Democratic State?”. This takes place at the Mary
Kingsley Auditorium, Fourah Bay College, University of
Sierra Leone, Tuesday, 23rd January; starting 6.00
p.m.

The letter was signed by Mohamed Suma, the “Programme Director” of the SLCMP (whose rotund cheeks
make him to look more like a ‘Bomba’ than a ‘Borbor
Pain’) physically brought the letter to my office.
Suma told me that other panelists would include: Dr.
Sylvia Blyden, Publisher of Awareness Times newspaper
(owner of the only 24-7 internet café in the country);
the ‘Courageous Lady’ with a lot of ‘balls’ to
challenge the entire Sierra Leone Association of
Journalists (SLAJ) over whether the Public Order Act
of 1965 should be expunged or kept in our law books;
Isaac Massaquoi, a lecturer of Mass Communication in
FBC, and ace veteran radio journalist; Joshua Nicol, a
veteran radio journalist, now in charge of an NGO that
sprouts F.M. developmental radio stations around the
country. That Dr. Blyden would be there...promises a
spicy discussion....Since I was recently bitten by Mayor Winstanley Bankole-Johnson(photo) in a publication that
smacks of Defamatory Libel against me, Dr. Blyden
could be heartened that one more victim of Defamatory
Libel could be fighting from her corner.....I have been
boning on “Defamatory Libel”...and “Seditious Libel”.

The Official Newsletter of the SLCMP, “The
Monitor” (Volume 15, July-August, 2006) gives some
details on Seditious Libel: “A libelous statement must
contain three elements before they are considered
actionable. Firstly, it must be proved that the
statement is false and defamatory. Secondly, the
statement must refer to a particular person, even if
it is an innuendo, and thirdly, the statement must be
published...”. Now read the chilling part from this
article: “...(The)...burden of proof rests solely on the
prosecution.

In addition, to prove seditious libel,
the Prosecution must prove seditious intention in the
published material. The interpretation text (Sec. 37
of the Public Order Act) defines seditious intention
as an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to
excite disaffection against a public
authority...Furthermore, the Prosecution also needs to
establish how much public disaffection or chaos the
publication is likely to cause. This simply means
that, no matter how much truth there is in the
published material, it will not be considered as a
defence for the accused. To this end, and given the
circumstances under which the law was promulgated, one
can only conclude that the primary purpose of the law
is to provide undue shield for public officials from
public scrutiny....”

As Secretary General of the Freedom of
Information Coalition-Sierra Leone, I state here
categorically that the essence of the Public Order Act
of 1965 which deals with Seditious Libel is
diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Freedom of
Information Bill which the FoIC-SL is lobbying
Parliament to pass into an Act.

A Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) will mean
that access to public information would be easy - and,
truth will be a defence. If the Seditious Libel
operates along with a Freedom of Information Act, it
could be like this.

A journalist suspects there is corruption in the
Health Ministry. He uses the law of FoIA, and demands
documents from the Health Ministry. He gets the facts.
He publishes; using such a headline: “Health Minister
‘Murders’ Ten Thousand Sierra Leoneans”. The story
gives authoritative data as to how the Health Minister
would have chopped money meant for Ante-retroviral
drugs for HIV-infected persons; and in the absence of
these drugs, ten thousand of the citizenry would die
premature deaths. There is potential for these ten
thousand persons to go on the riot. The society here
would be horrified that the minister would be so
callous as to chop money that could’ve prolonged
lives. The journalist could be indicted for seditious
libel - because, his article has the potential to
inflame public disaffection....Though the article was
the plain truth....

Dr. Blyden, who during an interview I did with
her on Radio 98.1. late last year, expressed public
support for a Freedom of Information Act, is not
likely to support a Seditious Libel Law in Sierra
Leone. Dr. Blyden’s grouse (too often spoken in
antagonistic language) is with the DEFAMATORY part of
the Public Order Act of 1965.

“Defamatory Libel” - according to the SLCMP’s
The Monitor - is basically “the publication of a
statement in a static form against a person, which is
likely to expose the individual to public hatred,
contempt or ridicule or to damage him in his trade,
business, profession, calling or office...” Mayor
Winstanley Bankole-Johnson recently published a widely
circulated document (published in several local
newspapers) that I wrote an article in this Column on
July 2, 2004, that the SLPP government should “stifle”
him.

I wrote nothing about Mayor Winstanley on the
said July 2, 2004. What I wrote on the matter on July
6, 2004 has no word like “stifle”. What Mayor
Winstanley could be saying is that the city of
Freetown was kept filthy for almost three years
because of writers like us whose ‘literary ammunition’
was used by the SLPP government to marginalize the
APC-elected city council. This is criminally
libelous!!. For apart from writing many articles to
promote the idea of making “Freetown the Cleanest City
in Africa”; I actually got the youth group I am guru
for - “Youth Arise!!!”- to meet with Mayor
Winstanley, and to promote ideas that would lead to
the cleaning of the city.

I signed letters to hundreds of schools, churches, mosques, all the leading international organizations in Salone, to solicit their support in 2004/2005 to make “Freetown the Cleanest City in Africa”. How can the Mayor imply that I wanted the city of Freetown to be filthy - to heap blame on the APC? Should the Mayor commit defamatory libel with impunity?

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