Sierra Leone Telegraph: February 11, 2022:
Yesterday, the president of the Sierra Leone Journalists Association (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, spoke in the town of Bo, in the south of Sierra Leone, as a distinguished guest speaker at the Annual General Meeting of the Bar Association of Sierra Leone, on the topic: “The repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act 1965: What are the safeguards to prevent abuse by journalists?”
Here is what he said:
We are truly honored to have the opportunity to discuss with brilliant legal minds gathered in this room this morning the question of safeguards available to prevent journalists from abusing the freedom granted to us by the historic repeal of the odious Criminal Libel Act contained in Part V of the Public Order Act 1965.
But before I dwell on that, let me make a necessary digression to talk a bit about our relationship with the Bar Association and why we need to strengthen that relationship through effective cooperation and collaboration for the benefit of the good public.
SLAJ and the Bar Association have come a long way; as far back as the 1970s when SLAJ was founded, a turbulent time for journalists in Sierra Leone. A period marked by arbitrary arrests, detentions and persecutions of journalists for the exercise of their profession.
At that time, according to our late President Daisy Bona, when a journalist published something controversial or a story that authorities deemed anti-government, the media house was stormed by SSD armed paramilitary police.
These violent attacks have always resulted in the arrest and detention of journalists who have been hastily brought to justice on spurious charges related to criminal defamation laws. In most cases, she recalls, printing machines and equipment were destroyed by hostile police.
Few journalists, she explained, had the courage to raise their voices in defense of their persecuted colleagues or the profession but, and I quote: “The Law Society of Sierra Leone was the only organization to speak on behalf of the media, to challenge the government and defend journalists on a pro bono basis.The government’s goal at the time was to silence all forms of opposition and freedom of expression by invoking the Criminal Libel Act enacted in 1965, four years after independence (end of quote).
Mr. Vice-President, Madam President, Madam President, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, that is how far we have come.
And since then, the Bar Association has supported SLAJ’s cause in pursuing the repeal of criminal defamation law, a feat we finally achieved in 2020; 50 long years later.
Last year, when celebrating our 50th anniversary, we were honored to have Madam President honoring our Golden Jubilee AGM here in this very town of Bo, and she delivered a impressive statement for the country’s media and its journalists.
Indeed, as Madam President noted in her address, lawyers and journalists share a common cause to strengthen democracy and consolidate peace and cohesion in our country.
Yes, we both have a crucial role to play in promoting the rule of law and justice, safeguarding good governance and protecting fundamental human rights like freedom of expression for every citizen, not only journalists. And Madam President urged lawyers to address these issues by challenging actions in court and through various media publications.
The late lawyer Jenkins Johnston Snr is missed for his popular and widely circulated letters to the President. The late man made good use of the media platform, especially the newspapers, to raise these issues, challenged the government’s actions and offered alternative solutions to major challenges facing the government and its agencies.
So our relationship has actually grown to the point where we now have members in both professions and eventually we will soon have a journalist elected president of the bar association and a lawyer president of SLAJ. Very soon.
Therefore, and I refer once again to the statement of Madam President, it is essential for an effective collaboration and a sustained partnership between the SLAJ and the Bar Association. We are two very strong voices, and when we combine these voices and speak and speak out on issues close to the common enemies of bad governance, injustice, lawlessness, corruption, tribalism, of divisive politics, etc., the change we seek in our country will be achieved sooner rather than later.
The Honorable Vice-President, Madam President, Madam President, Distinguished Administrators and Members of the Bar, allow me now to speak briefly about the safeguards aimed at preventing journalists from abusing the newfound freedom made necessary through the repeal of criminal defamation law.
1. The Civil Libel Act and Ordinance 1961, which provides for civil libel.
When we pursued the repeal of Part V, the main concern always put forward by the authorities, including the Parliament of Sierra Leone and certain sections of the general public, was: what will be the replacement if we remove the criminal defamation? Our answer was: there is no replacement! And they looked at us in amazement.
The fact is that the repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act 1965 did not remove libel law from our law books. What repeal did, and it was the reasonable and just thing to do, was shield the criminal from defamation. No one, not just journalists, should be considered a criminal for expressing and publicizing their opinion on matters or activities of government and officials.
So civil libel law is still on our law books and that’s a huge safeguard. With civil libel law, the offending journalist (or citizen) is required to pay a fine/compensation if found liable by a court of competent jurisdiction.
2. The Independent Media Commission (hereinafter referred to as “IMC”) with the power to enforce its provisions in the Media Code of Practice.
Remember that the IMC was created in 2000 as part of the evolution of the media towards self-regulation. I will call this external self-regulation. The IMC, as a statutory body, registers and regulates the media in Sierra Leone.
With the repeal of Part V came the passage of the IMC Act 2022 which strengthened the powers of the IMC to enforce the practice of the Media Code.
Citizens who feel aggrieved by the publications or broadcast by the media submit a formal complaint to the IMC. The media house allegedly at fault will sit before the IMC Complaints Committee to defend its publication or broadcast. If, in the end, the Committee finds them failing, they may be fined, ordered to retract and apologize with equal prominence to the offending publication or broadcast.
The third guarantee is:
3. The Disciplinary Commission (hereinafter referred to as “DC”) having the power to enforce the SLAJ Code of Ethics. This is what I will call internal self-regulation by SLAJ.
People aggrieved by journalists’ publications can also complain to the DC. The DC will investigate the complaint and if the journalist is found to be at fault, disciplinary action will be taken to act as a deterrent.
The composition of the CD has been strengthened to now include members appointed from the public. The CD’s mandate has also been revised to not only be limited to receiving and investigating complaints, but also to be proactive in preventing complaints and accompanying the media on their long journey towards responsible, ethical and professional practice.
Additionally, the DC is now supported by regional and district monitors to reflect the national nature of SLAJ.
A fourth backup is:
4. Editorial policy of press houses. Editorial policies guide media direction and adherence to quality and professional controls.
Mr. Vice-President, Madam President, Madam President, Gentlemen Administrators and Members of the Bar, a final and obvious guarantee is TRAINING. Ongoing training and education of journalists is essential to promote responsible and professional practice.
We believe that the more freedom an individual gets, the more responsible they become.
Finally, I take this opportunity to wish Madam President and her team a successful re-election and that your deliberations during this AGM are meaningful to your aspirations as a noble Association.