By Cyril Barnes
In the face of cynicism and naysaying, the much-talked-about Criminal Libel Law has become a history buried and never to be exhumed. Today, we extol President Bio, who amidst hazy clouds of media defamation and crucifixion, appended his signature to forge a new dawn for media emancipation in Sierra Leone. For years hence, it will be said that the law used to repress journalists in the course of their duty has fallen to the heroic decision of Sierra Leone’s Commander in Chief.
The honour to achieve such an enviable milestone should be shared with the Honourable Minister of Information and Communication, Mohamed Rahman Swaray—who despite all the media-bashing—pushed the button for the successful completion of a journey many once thought was impossible. As the driver of President Bio’s vision of a free, unfettered and responsible press, he ran with the never-tiring zeal to fulfil the New Direction commitment.
It is no gaining saying that, in the wake of our democracy, every past president had expressed a desire to repeal the Criminal Libel Law, but along the line, they discovered that the law itself was a defensive armour, shielding them from transparency and accountability. President Bio enthusiastically made a manifesto commitment to repeal the said law; and, in spite of all character assassinations and vilification, he has boldly delivered his manifesto promise.
In his statements, President Julius Maada Bio notes that the International Community clamoured for its removal; however, the impetus for its removal also came from within Sierra Leone, as the Criminal Libel Law infringed the letter and spirit of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and of the press as provided for in Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone.
He holds the view that the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law was simply bad, and had been used for more than half a century to criminalise journalism and gag the press from performing its constitutional responsibility. He notes further that successive governments had failed to abolish this law which had always threatened civil liberties.
The First Gentleman maintained that: “Bad governments persist by avoiding scrutiny. They believe they thrive when they cast every statement from journalists that are critical of them or seeks accountability as hostile and posing a clear and present danger to their hold on power and thus to the security of the state. Bad governments foster a climate of silence and fear. They prevent scrutiny of their tenure or their actions as leaders.”
The President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Sahid Ahmed Nasralla valiantly showered adoration on President Bio for his display of bravery. He was fully suaded that the President has conquered what others found too attractive to relinquish. “As a politician, I know that you also share in the fear that this repeal might expose you to insults, abuse and vilification. But the fact that you have mustered the bravery to do it, shows me, that only a man, who enters the military profession, knowing full well, that he may have to go into battle, face bullets and bombs, and may die, that can have the courage to do this,” he said.
Senior Journalist and Editor of Salone Times Newspaper, Thomas Dixon expressed delight in the expunging of the law, adding that the step taken will embolden and enhance credible, independent and responsible journalism in Sierra Leone, and will, as well, open a floodgate for media investment so that, the much-trumpeted media poverty will be a thing of the past. Making a comparative analysis to Ghana, he noted further that the repealing will open another door for a journalistic niche—investigative journalism—to thrive.
Analysts from broad political and activism spectrums have commended the Government of President Bio for its daring step to remove the obnoxious law, as it impedes on the fundamental rights of journalists, and it prevents them from dispensing their duty as eyes and ears of the people.
While congratulating President Bio, the British Conservative politician and former banker serving as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Africa since 2020, James Philip Duddridge considered the repealing of the Criminal Libel Law and the passing of the new Independent Media Commission Act as an important step in guaranteeing the safeguards of a free press, which is the lifeblood of democracy.
Tariq Mahmood Ahmad, Baron Ahmad of Wimbledon, a British businessman and Conservative life peer, who was appointed Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2017, believes improving the rights of journalists and strengthening media freedoms are essential for all democracies around the world.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other human rights organizations have all hailed President Bio’s heroic deed, stressing that the biggest beneficiary of the repeal of this bad law is Sierra Leone.