When Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio, delivered the final blow to his country’s long outdated Public Order Act last week, he also took a strong step towards entrenching free speech and creating a vital, free media.
During July, a particularly obnoxious section of the Public Order Act was repealed. This is the section that dealt with defamatory and seditious libel. Criminal libel has often been a vicious tool in the hands of repressive governments, including earlier governments of Sierra Leone itself. In fact there are at this moment, pending cases of criminal and seditious libel in Sierra Leone. After years of hesitation about what should be done, members of parliament finally decided that they wanted nothing more to do with Section V, and in July they targeted the section that deals with criminal libel for immediate removal.
Last week, President Bio took the next step after the July repeal of Section V: he added his presidential weight to the repeal of the provisions creating the offence of criminal libel and announced a new deal for the media in Sierra Leone.
The signing took place in the presence of a number of dignitaries including the Chief Justice, Desmond Babatunde Edwards. His appearance at the event was particularly significant given a decision by the Supreme Court in December 2009: under a previous CJ, the highest court rejected a constitutional challenge and held that the libel laws created by the Public Order Act did not violate press freedom.
The President said the decision to scrap the section that created criminal libel was ‘informed by our unique history, a blameworthy past, and my government’s fervent belief that we must break with that past towards a more open, participatory, and accountable democracy.’
Reporting on the event, local media raised the question of whether the repeal would apply retrospectively, so that charges against those now facing charges of criminal libel would be dropped. The President responded to this councern: ‘My government will review the cases of all persons facing charges of criminal and seditious libel under the old law.’
President Bio said that he was determined to ensure Sierra Leone had a free and flourishing media. He had met with the Independent Media Commission and the Minister of Information and Communications two days before to discuss how to support Sierra Leone's many newspapers, radio stations and TV stations so that they could ‘thrive and evolve in a country with an enviable history of pioneering journalism in West Africa.’
Sierra Leone has been ranked among the top five countries in Africa for facilitating and supporting freedom of expression, he said. For many years before, however, ‘we had a legislative and governance regime that criminalised journalism. Successive governments had failed to abolish this law that threatened civil liberties and had been abused over the course of half a century by successive governments.’
The criminal and seditious libel law ‘was simply a bad law,’ he said. Bad government continued to exist ‘by avoiding scrutiny.’ Any critical comment by the media was regarded as posing ‘a clear and present danger to the hold on power and thus to the security of the state’, the President concluded.
'Noise with intent'
There is, however, more to the Public Order Act than criminal libel alone. It is a typical piece of colonial-age legislation. Enacted at the end of 1965, it put the offence of criminal defamation into the government’s kit-bag for use against journalists and political critics. It further created the offence of seditious libel. Both of these have now been removed.
The law also creates some bizarre offences apart from the politically sensitive crime of criminal libel.
For example, it would be a breach of public order for someone to ‘say or sing any insulting or offensive song or ballad or make any noise with intent’ to provoke anyone else to breach the peace. Under this law it would be an offence to say or sing any insulting song or ballad, or to call someone ‘by a name or description other than his own, with intent to insult or annoy’.
It was an offence to hide someone’s tools or clothes, or to ‘watch or beset’ someone’s house. Throwing fireworks could have landed the thrower in jail for a month, while being ‘idle and disorderly’ would have led to a similar punishment. The definition of ‘idle and disorderly’? – someone ‘loitering in or about a stable, house or building … or in the open air’ without having any visible means of subsistence.
Beating any drum, gong or tom-tom or dancing to the beat of these drums earlier than 4pm or later than 9pm would result in serious trouble. No-one was allowed to play any music or noisy instrument or sing in the street before 6am or after 10pm. ‘Any person who, in any street or public place, shall wilfully or wantonly, and after being warned to desist, ring any bell or blow any horn or shell or sound or play any musical or noisy instrument, or shout, sing or make any other loud or unseemly noise to the annoyance or disturbance of any person, shall on conviction be liable to a fine, not exceeding 10 leones.’
The Public Order Act is now, along with these strange offences, a thing of the past. For journalists must now get to know the new Independent Media Commission Act 2020 as intimately as they had known the libel provisions of the Public Order Act. The change in attitude by the government and the promise to become more media-friendly has been widely welcomed. A senior journalist in Sierra Leone is quoted as saying that the old law in effect criminalised journalism as a profession in Sierra Leone and the repeal of Section V represented a new dawn for the country’s media.
Full text of the President's repeal speech