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Sierra Leone Journalist Urges Court to Decriminalize Libel Law

The President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) is urging the country’s Supreme Court to expedite its ruling in a case concerning the 1965 Public Order Act which criminalizes libel.

Sierra Leone journalists had challenged the Act on the grounds it was detrimental to media freedom and freedom of expression. They even staged a news blackout of the judiciary this past June to protest the Supreme Court’s failure to rule on the matter.

The journalists said they postponed their blackout only after President Ernest Bai Koroma intervened and promised that the court would deliver its verdict in mid-September.

Umaru Fofana, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists said the Public Order Act is contrary to Sierra Leone’s current constitution.

“Under that law, a journalist or anybody in fact who writes and publishes a material can be arrested and jailed whether or not what they published or said was true…at the same time we have the constitution of 1991 that guarantees free speech,” he said.

Fofana said the journalists, having found the contradiction in the two laws had asked the Supreme Court to repeal the criminal aspect of the 1965 Public Order Act.

He said the delay in the court’s ruling borders on a violation of Sierra Leone’s constitution.

"We went to court in February 2008 and it took the court one year for them to sit on the matter which was February of this year. Now according to the country’s constitution, no court should sit for more than three months after final arguments have been made in a matter without giving a ruling,” he said.

Fofana said the delay prompted journalists to impose a news blackout of the judiciary this past June and seek the intervention of President Koroma.

But he said the Supreme Court has yet to render its verdict despite President Koroma’s assurance it would do so by mid-September.

“At some point we told them to get in touch with us to give us the reason as to why they have still not giving the ruling on the matter…so we think it’s absolute inertia on the part the highest court of Sierra Leone,” Fofana said.

He said while there might be some unprincipled journalists, still any such journalistic digression should not be criminalized.

“Journalists who write or broadcast anything that is not true can be brought to book in Sierra Leone by the Independent Media Commission which sits like a civil court…therefore we want libel to be decriminalized for it to be a civil offense rather than a criminal one. Somebody should not be locked up because of what they said or wrote,” Fofana said.

He said Sierra Leone journalists are counting on President Koroma to make good on his campaign promise to review the country’s criminal libel law.

But Fofana said he understands President Koroma may have little or no impact on what the court decides because of the separation of judicial and executive powers.