Sierra Leone: RTI Bill tabled in Parliament…but urges decriminalization of libel

By Bai-Bai Sesay – After several years of dithering, the Right to Access To Information (RTI) bill was ON November 11, 2010 laid before the Sierra Leone Parliament and debate started in earnest. The bill went through the first and second readings at the House before it was committed to the Legislative Committee.

The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) have  lauded the efforts of the Government of Sierra Leone, civil society organizations especially the Society for Democratic Initiatives and foreign partners especially the World Bank who have worked very hard to make this historical day a reality.

“This is a watershed move and every Sierra Leonean must be proud of it” SLAJ President Umaru Fofana says. “With this law our country can only prosper” he goes on, urging Parliament to debate the bill with the nation at heart, and without partisan interests beclouding discussions. He says after an extraordinary meeting to be held next week, SLAJ will come out with a position statement stating its position on certain provisions of the bill  with a view to helping Parliament pass a robust law.

The SLAJ President, however, goes on to say that the retention of the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law as contained in Part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act will negatively affect journalists from enjoying the RTI law, as some information acquired through the use of the RTI law may embarrass certain public officials who may want to invoke provisions of the Criminal and Seditious Libel law against journalists citing “public disaffection”.

According to SLAJ, they want to remind President Ernest Bai Koroma to make real his pledge for a review of the libel law just as he has done with the tabling of the RTI Law on the 11th of November 2010.

In recent times, the National Human Rights Commission and the Sierra Leone bar association have joined a long list of institutions that have joined SLAJ in calling for a repeal of Criminal and Seditious Libel Law.

It could be recalled that Uganda’s Supreme Court has ruled that the country’s Seditious Libel Law is inconsistent with Freedom of Expression which is guaranteed by its constitution. The five-member panel said the law did not fall within the acceptable limit of free speech and struck seditious libel off the country’s law books.

This is exactly what SLAJ was trying to prove when in February 2008 the association took a similar move to have our Supreme Court do what their Ugandan counterparts have done. Our highest court however saw the need to rule as such. We however remain steadfast in seeking a repeal of the obnoxious law that allows journalists to be locked up sometimes allowing for pre-trial detention.

“Sierra Leone should conform to the norms of civilized standards and repeal the Criminal and Seditious Libel law”, says Umaru Fofana, SLAJ President. “This is as bad a law today as it has always been, and it is bad for journalists and non-journalists alike” he continues. He says the association still awaits a commitment made early this year by President Ernest Bai Koroma that he would review the law before the end of his current term in September 2012.