The Parliament of Sierra Leone on July 23, 2020 unanimously approved the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act 2020 and repealed the 1965 Public Order Act (POA) that criminalized libel and sedition in what has been hailed as a historic moment for the media in the country.
“I want all of us to consider this moment as a solemn one in our democratic dispensation,” the Chair of the Legislative Committee, Hon. Hindolo Moiwo Gevao, said while presenting a report on the Bills to the House, adding “Today we have seen a repeal of a law that several Sierra Leoneans have labored under its axe.”
The Independent Media Commission Act 2020 replaces Part 5 of the Public Order Act and repeals criminal libel. This fulfils an important campaign promise of President Julius Maada Bio.
“Part Five of Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act criminalises any publication that is deemed defamatory or seditious and has been used as a regime to unduly target and imprison media practitioners and silence dissident views,” President Bio observed during a cocktail meeting with journalists on December 5, 2018 in the capital, Freetown.
He added that his cabinet has approved a bill to remove the repressive sections of the Act.
The repeal is a major victory for the media in Sierra Leone which has fought for decades alongside human rights activists in and outside the country to get rid of the restraint on press freedom contained in the Public Order Act passed in 1965 which has been used by successive governments to crackdown on critical journalism, amidst promises by opposition leaders to repeal it if voted into power.
Almost all veterans of Sierra Leone’s media have been victims of the infamous law. On September 22, 2017, the then chief editor of The New Age newspaper, Ibrahim Samura, now late, was charged with four counts of sedition and criminal libel. Donald Theo Harding and Thomas Dixon – both of Salone Times newspaper – were also charged with ten counts of sedition and criminal libel.
On October 18, 2013, the Managing Editor of the Independent Observer, Jonathan Leigh and Chief Editor, Bai Bai Sesay, were arrested and detained 19 days without trial after publishing a satirical article about President Ernest Koroma.
David Tam-Baryoh and Paul Kamara are also among many other veterans, who have been victims of the infamous sedition law.
As recently as May 1, 2020, the authorities arrested Silvia Olayinka Blyden, publisher of the Awareness Times newspaper, and charged her with violating sections 27, 32, and 33 of the Public Order Act in connection with her critical Facebook posts. Accused of defaming the government, she spent a total of 50 days in detention, before being granted bail.
The repeal has therefore been welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm.
“This law practically criminalised journalism as a profession in Sierra Leone. A politician or any powerful figure could just call a police officer to arrest journalists and detain them under the pretext that they have violated the Public Order Act. Even publishers of newspapers could go to jail for publications deemed defamatory. We have fought this albatross of a law for about five decades. The expunging of Part 5 of the Public Order Act is a new dawn for the Sierra Leone media,” rejoiced Mohammed Bah, General Secretary of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ).
President of SLAJ Shahid Nasrallah reacting to the news said “Freedom comes with great power and great power comes with great responsibility. So, as we celebrate. Let us bear in mind that we are starting a new journey to responsible, professional and patriotic practice.”
“As a victim of this bad law, I am very happy about the repeal of the criminal libel law. This is a victory for all of us, the media, civil societies and the international community. But let me advise my colleague journalists that though we are celebrating as well as heaping praises here and there; let me remind them of the Civil Libel Law (Act no. 32 of 1961).” Bai Bai Sessay, former Chief Editor of the Independent Observer said.
The MFWA joins the media in Sierra Leone to hail this important milestone in the history of journalism in the country. It is a welcome relief for journalists in Sierra Leone, many of whom were arrested, arbitrarily detained, or sentenced to prison under the Act.
The ball is now in the court of the media to handle their new-found freedom with professionalism, dignity and respect for the rights of others.