In most countries, libel or defamation is a civil rather than criminal offence. But in Sierra Leone, since 1965, libel has been punishable by a prison sentence. This law has been used to limit the freedoms of speech and expression in the country, and has provoked major discord between governments, journalists and human rights activists over the decades.
But in a major victory for press freedom and freedom of expression, last month parliament repealed the infamous criminal libel law – making good a promise that President Maada Bio made on the campaign trail prior to his 2018 election.
“The repeal of this law removed the chilling effect. Journalists have always been chilled or muzzled for the fear of going to jail if they picked up a story against a powerful politician,” said Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, the head of Society for Democratic Initiative, a civil society organisation who has been campaigning for the law to be overturned.
“Criminal libel law puts journalists in jail and that’s a major impediment, and it’s repeal is very huge for journalism, freedom of expression in a country that has gone to war, that has seen millions of people die because of one party dictatorship,” Abdulai added.
Observers say that for over 55 years, the criminal libel law was used by regimes to target, intimidate, harass and imprison journalists and suppress dissent.
“This law was a weapon for politicians. From our records, it was used by 99 percent of politicians, and 99 percent of the victims have been journalists,” Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), told the Mail & Guardian.
Nasralla said that it was common practice for politicians to instruct the police to arrest and detain journalists who attempted to be critical of public officials. “Usually, journalists are arrested on Fridays so that they would spend the weekend in detention. SLAJ leadership would then have to intervene and plead for the release of the arrested journalists.”
The controversial law leaves behind a grim legacy for many journalists who in one way or another had suffered its consequences. Most recently, in May 2020, the publisher of the Awareness Times newspaper, Silvia Olayinka Blyden, was arrested in her home and charged with sedition, defamation and “perversion of justice.”
Another high-profile case was that of Jonathan Leigh and Bai Bai Sesay, the Managing Editor and Chief Editor of the Independent Observer, who were detained for over two weeks without trial in 2013 for publishing a satirical article about former president Ernest Bai Koroma. Other victims include radio journalist David Tam-Bayoh, former sports minister Paul Kamara, and editors Ibrahim Samura and Thomas Dixon.
“As a journalist, practicing in an environment that criminalizes free speech makes it difficult for you to do your job,” observed Dixon, the Editor of Salone Times newspaper.
In 2013, Dixon was detained by the Criminal Investigation Department for a story he had written with the headline: “President Koroma Tame Your Shrew.” The piece was about how the former president should control one of his aides. He was questioned by police and ended up spending the entire day in detention before he was granted bail.
Dixon told the M&G: “Sometimes you may have gathered your facts. But, when you think about the law, you may just abandon your story. I know for a fact that investigative journalism was going down in Sierra Leone all because of this law.”
The repeal of the controversial law is likely to strengthen Sierra Leone’s democracy. According to Nasralla from the SALJ, “by repealing that archaic law, Sierra Leone has joined the enviable global community of progressive nations because that law had no place in a democracy.”
He added: “With the repeal we have been given enormous freedom and this means great power. But great power comes with great responsibility…not to abuse this freedom but to use it to hold government and public officials to account in a fair and responsible manner; provide the space for healthy democratic conversation; and contribute to the development of our nation.”
This feature first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.