Press Freedom and the 1965 Public Order Act in Sierra Leone

16 February 2008 at 21:21 | 1156 views

By Abdulai Bayraytay, Toronto, Canada.

The recent arrest of Jonathan Leigh, Managing Editor of the Freetown-based tabloid, the Independent Observer, on the alleged orders of the Minister of Transport and Aviation has been widely seen as a sickening negation of President Ernest Bai Koroma’s speech at the Sierra Leonean Parliament in which he tacitly promised that his government would adhere to the principle of freedom of expression in a modern democratic setting.

In fact, the president also alluded to the conscientious role the media could play in a nascent, if not fledgling democracy in a country recuperating from a decade of human rights violations that left scores of civilians, including journalists, persecuted with scores of several others brazenly murdered in the hands of scoundrels on both sides of the country’s conflict. President Koroma could not have aptly put it more than his encouragement of the press,when he said: “the media will be encouraged to responsibly perform its oversight functions and to fulfill its constitutional role of holding government accountable...”

Prosecuting journalists under the notorious 1965 Public Order Act that criminalizes libel in the country does not only make mockery of the arduous calls made by both local and international press freedom activists, but it also smacks of the double standards some governments are dishonorably known for; condemning a law but finding pleasure in using it when its authority base is tested.

With the enshrinement of freedom of speech under Chapter three of the 1991 Sierra Leone constitution, coupled with the avowed promise made by erstwhile president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) now minister of Information and Broadcasting Ibrahim Ben Kargbo that “the 1965 Public Order Act has been used in the past to victimize journalists in Sierra Leone and should be removed from our law books”, the temerity of the Minister of Transport and Aviation to “order” the arrest of Jonathan Leigh was nothing more than an indication of how power, which could sometimes be an opium in its excessive use, can been used by some politicians.

However, for journalism as a profession to still enjoy its indefatigability as an institution poised to expose the excesses of particularly repressive governments to uphold the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government spending for the curbing of corruption, and civil society empowerment, journalists should be seen to uphold the highest standards of ethics and professionalism.

It is only when this is achieved that the press is expected to portray the coveted image of being the Fourth Estate that is expected to play a positive role as a partner in the dissemination of information to enlighten the mass of Sierra Leoneans for the development of the country.

This is where I join Reporters Without Borders in deploring the actions of the Transport and Aviation minister’s use of a repressive law to prosecute Jonathan Leigh, and condemn the government generally for the use of an outdated law by a member of a government that undertook not to use it any more. This is against the backdrop that any aggrieved party should use fair and suitable methods for rendering justice in cases of libel that would not in any way include a criminal prosecution that would result to a detention.

Indeed, the editor-in-chief of the Freetown-based weekly For Di People newspaper, Paul Kamara, nearly lost his life when he was imprisoned by the Tejan Kabbah-led Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) government for several months, thanks to this nefarious law passed on to "independent" Sierra Leone by the despicable British colonialists.

Perhaps a clear test for the APC government lies in bringing to justice the former Tonkolili SLPP Member of Parliament Dr. Fatmata Hassan and her children for the alleged beating to death of Harry Yansaneh, former editor of the same For Di People newspaper.

The powers that be have to understand that any mantra about the promotion of democracy would mean nothing if freedom of the press is muzzled and respect of freedom of speech is compromised.

Jonathan Leigh was arrested for a newspaper publication that alleged that the minister of Transport and Aviation was constructing two mighty mansions at the same time after having barely spent less than six months in office.