Criminal Libel Law Repealed
Changing laws that oppress freedom of expression and quality journalism is not easy. It takes time, hard work and sustained high-level political commitment, as is evidenced by previous commentaries posted on this website.
In Sierra Leone, Ministers in successive governments have wrestled with Section V of The Public Order Act (1965) which made libel a criminal offence. Under the law journalists could be imprisoned and the law was in many cases used to silence criticism of the government.
In 2016, GMT Media was invited to Sierra Leone to discuss with the then Ministers of Justice and Communications how progress could be made. An extensive consultation started which included Police, Justice, journalists and Human Rights organisations. This was led by Jerry Timmins and Steve McCauley and was focused on identifying the obstacles to change and the potential benefits that might flow if those obstacles could be overcome.
Justifiable concerns were raised about how to deal with people who incite violence or unrest and what to do about those who deliberately publish lies. A review of existing legislation, and proposals to empower an independent media regulator, led to the drafting of a cabinet paper which outlined how to decriminalise libel and strengthen quality journalism at the same time. The proposal was still opposed by some in cabinet and parliament but had the support of key senior figures. However, an election then intervened.
The election of 2018 resulted in President Ernest Bai Koroma's All People's Congress Party being defeated by Julius Maada Bio's Sierra Leone People's Party.
President Bio immediately made it clear that he wanted to drive reform forward. He publicly committed to decriminalising libel and spoke directly to Sierra Leone's journalists, assuring them of his good intentions. Even with this open commitment, concerns still needed to be addressed and with many other challenges facing the new government, momentum could easily have been lost.
GMT Media met with President Bio in December 2018, when he personally repeated his determination to strike out what he saw as an unjust law. Many people were to play their part in supporting the change, including key figures in Cabinet, the Justice sector, Human Rights workers, the tireless Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, the Police as well as British and Irish diplomats. All demonstrated the patience and resilience needed to work through what are tough issues for any country. But the most important factor was the leadership provided by President Bio himself. His open and repeated support for the process went beyond anything done by any of his predecessors. This was to prove essential in striking out Section V of the Public Order Act.
On July 23rd 2020 the Sierra Leone Parliament unanimously repealed the criminal libel law.
Managing Director, GMT Media Ltd