Analysis

Sylvia Blyden’s Judgement Call

20 May 2009 at 06:08 | 1885 views

By Dr. Kayode Robbin-Coker, United Kingdom.

Yesterday’s Awareness Times (AT) Newspaper carried a piece by Dr Sylvia Blyden quaintly titled "Antecedent of My Piece on Kailahun Mess has nothing to do with Sia Koroma or John Benjamin":
[ http://www.news.sl/drwebsite/publish/article_200512216.shtml ].

It was Dr Blyden’s detailed explanation cum justification for AT’s recent publication of an article captioned “After False Portrayal as First Lady President Sweet Heart in Kailahun Mess” which has resulted in the Sierra Leone Police issuing rather contentious arrest warrants for Dr Blyden (the Newspaper’s publisher) and her Acting Editor Abdul Karim Kabia.

Reading Dr Blyden’s account of how this "Fake First Lady" story came about, I was struck by the more-than-merely-incidental parallels with the case of journalist Paul Kamara who was found guilty just under five years ago by a local court on two counts of seditious libel and sentenced to two years imprisonment. More to the point, I couldn’t help wondering how/why/if Dr Blyden herself couldn’t see these parallels as well.

Hegel is supposed to have said that "the only thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history". I remember Dr Blyden breaking the news of Paul Kamara’s conviction for seditious libel on that October day in 2004, and the ensuing debate on the Leonenet @ TAMU listserv about the controversial use of the Public Order Act 1965 to secure that conviction. Dr Blyden was, as I recall, impressively lucid about the implications of this case, and there was a memorable exchange between her and Human Rights Lawyer Alim Sesay from which I reproduce "edited highlights" below. The commentary, I believe, speaks for itself:

SYLVIA BLYDEN:

Libel charges can be civil or can be criminal but the term "seditious libel" specifically refers to a type of criminal libel wherein the writer is accused of having demeaned the office of the presidency (or Executive arm of government) in a deliberate bid to get the public to lose confidence in the holder of the presidency [and/or executive] and hence embolden the public to rise up against the presidency. Hence the "SEDITION" in the charge.

So, the charge for which Paul kamara has been sent down revolved NOT around Ahmed Tejan Kabbah the citizen but Ahmed Tejan Kabbah the President and Head of State."

ALIM SESAY:

You are right on the money. The protection under the seditious libel is for the President and such protection covers acts he did before becoming a President and while he is President. Regardless of the time the President may have acted unlawfully, the publication of those facts while he is President is what the law seeks to prevent.

SYLVIA BLYDEN:

My Learned Kottor Alim Esq,
Allow me to disagree slightly with you. The SEDITIOUS LIBEL charge ONLY covers actual LIBEL and ABSOLUTELY does NOT block the publication of anything a President has done in the past. If indeed, the President had been convicted in the past and Kamara had reproduced this conviction in his newspapers, that WOULD NOT HAVE CONSTITUTED SEDITIOUS LIBEL because unless my English is getting rusty, LIBEL only applies when publication of outright FALSEHOOD occurs. Seditious libel is when you publish falsehood so as to demean the Head of State/President.
..................................... Now, please note that Paul Kamara is not your ’normal’ human being. He is a very interesting human being. Kamara was warned several times to desist from this convict insistence by many people including his own colleague journalists. He was taking a risky long shot with those "Kabbah is a True Convict" publications of his but then again, that is the style of Paul Kamara.

ALIM SESAY:

I think seditious libel is not only about the publication of false statements, but also the publication of valid statements. The test here is whether the publication of any statement is demeaning to the Presidency in the eyes of the public. This law is intended to provide immunity against attacking a sitting President or official. It is very similar to the immunity from prosecution Presidents enjoy under customary international law while abroad for crimes committed before they became Presidents and during their Presidency. See the Congo case, ICJ Paras 54-61.

[END]

These points (among others) loom large from the foregoing:

1. The "obstinacy" Dr Blyden recognised so accurately in Paul Kamara; the opportunities offered (and not taken) for Kamara to withdraw from the confrontational position he was in, and his apparent conviction, instead, that this was a fight he had to persevere with. Fast forward to Dr Blyden’s position now, and I hope I do not exaggerate the case when I say that I perceive a failure to recognise mirror images which might prove very costly ...

2. Alim Sesay’s interpretation of the seditious libel provisions in the above commentary, in particular the clincher that the truth/validity of statements made about the President is irrelevant as long as the statements are held to be "demeaning to the presidency in the eyes of the public". Again, fast forward to 2009 and I would like to be proved wrong, but is Dr Blyden really confident of proving in a Sierra Leone court that statements which refer repeatedly to the President’s "alleged mistress ... concubine" etc are not to be judged "demeaning [to the President] ...in the eyes of the public"?

I have registered elsewhere (along with many others who have considered these matters) my opinion that the Public Order Act 1965 has no place in a modern democracy and should be replaced. Nevertheless it remains, and one would be hard pressed to find more effective sledgehammers with which to crack recalcitrant nuts than the seditious libel provisions contained therein. Those commentators on the "Fake First Lady" story who have focused on the "public interest" angle and those who have applauded the AT publication as raising appropriate questions about the President’s moral compass (or lack of it) are making valid, important points but, as well, missing the point about the virtual inevitability of seditious libel convictions in today’s climate.

Standard Times Editor Philip Neville and the "Libyan Rice" saga is perhaps the best object lesson here because, as we recall, Neville peered into the abyss of a seditious libel prosecution, took the best offer he was ever likely to get from the outraged politicians (an unqualified apology promptly published on the front page of his paper) and so lived to fight another day (which he has lost no time in doing since yesterday with his sideswipes at the executive of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists [SLAJ] and Dr Blyden).

It seems hard to believe now that the events which have led in the past few days to Dr Blyden and her Assistant Editor having to go into hiding in genuine fear for their safety, have their roots in the very public falling out between Dr Blyden and the Press Secretary to the President, Sheka "Shekito" Tarawallie, over their rather different interpretations of news items (especially those involving the APC Government of President Ernest Koroma). There is no doubting the fact that Dr Blyden has for a long time now felt very aggrieved at what she took to be the continued failure of President Koroma to rein in his Press Secretary. The perennial, continual trading of insults between the State House and Garrison Street camps should have culminated, earlier this year, in a libel action brought by Dr Blyden against Press Secretary Tarawallie under (what else?) the aforesaid POA 1965. I say "should have" because, in one of the most politically motivated interventions in Sierra Leone’s recent legal history, the Attorney-General, who has the final say in whether any actions can be brought under these libel provisions of the POA, slammed the door on Dr Blyden’s action with the euphemistic announcement of a nolle prosequi (literally "unwilling to pursue"). This intervention, according to Dr Blyden, had President Koroma’s fingerprints all over it:

"The President has a Press Secretary who refuses to look at the issues of National importance raised by Awareness Times but instead deflects attention of the public to what he perceives to be Sylvia Blyden’s private life. When he gets dragged to Court for Libel, President Koroma gets him to be set free under nolle prosequi".

There are attendant ironies here, too. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been fighting for some time now for the removal of these criminal/seditious libel provisions from the POA 1965, and there have been angry exchanges with Dr Blyden on that head re her refusal to support the SLAJ line. These subtextual differences notwithstanding, SLAJ has taken the pragmatic line of publicly condemning the police call for Dr Blyden’s apprehension, no doubt because they realise that her cause is, mutatis mutandi, theirs, too — seditious libel will remain an occupational hazard for all journalists in Salone for as long as the POA 1965 remains on the statute books in its current form.

It hardly needs saying that Sylvia Blyden, like Paul Kamara, is ’not your "normal" human being’. Not everyone would agree with her apparent reasoning that the President’s silence over Mr Tarawallie’s alleged campaign of insults against her is de facto evidence of his "complicity", but that is the primary ground on which she is claiming the consequential right to (effectively) broaden the scope of her feud with Shekito to include the President himself. It is a rather imaginative leap which one would hope she has run past her lawyers (at least once).

Dr Blyden does seem determined still to hold her line regarding the contentious publication, but I believe she might want to take a more dispassionate view of this matter and use the benefit of hindsight to put discretion before valour and act in her own best interests rather than on instinct or even, dare I say it, principle. With the current media spotlight focussed so firmly on the GOSL’s handling of this matter and calls from many influential circles for good sense to prevail on all sides, she has as good an opportunity as any to rethink a high-stakes confrontation which, quite frankly, appears to have been rather insecurely premised on transforming her spat with "Shekito" into a retributory attack on Shekito’s employer. Will she take it? I sincerely hope so, because the alternatives look rather less salutory at the moment.

Dr. Kayode Robbin-Coker(photo) is a regular contributor to Leonenet @ TAMU, an email listserv for Sierra Leonean issues.

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