SLAJ President Calls For the Criminal Libel Law

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SLAJ President

Salutations: Mr Chairman please allow me to stand on existing protocols.

Good morning all, I bring you greetings from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists.

Let me recognise the presence of our three past presidents- Kelvin Lewis, Umaru Fofana and Hon. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo.

From the outset let me state that our business here today is to lobby you for two things. The first is to repeal the Criminal Libel laws and pass the new IMC Bill. The second is to amend certain sections of the IMC Bill which is before you, tobring it into conformity with the spirit and letters of the 1991 Constitution.

CRIMINAL LIBEL

On the International level the Criminal Libel laws are an embarrassment to this country, and it will continue to be so until you repeal them. For several sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where it periodically Reviews our Human Rights records, our country’s representatives have been called out that we are in breach of several International treaties among which are, The International Convention on Human and People’s Rights, The African Charter on Human and People’s rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to name just a few. Today we begin the process of ending the embarrassment for our diplomatic representatives who sit quietly and sometimes bow their heads in shame as they are spoken down upon.

Again we know everybody wants the media to develop. But let me make bold to say the “blackmail and corruption” that you accuse the media of, can be minimized, if not end, if the media practitioners are paid well. This can only happen if the door is opened to businessmen to invest in the media. As it stands any businessman who dares to invest in the media, stands the risk of going to jail for what his reporter might have written.

We say remove the Criminal libel laws and allow the economic forces to regulate. That way any businessman who invests over a hundred million Leones in the media will promptly sack any errant editor who publishes anything that would cause him the proprietor to be taken to court and fined. That is self regulation and that is the conversation which led to the setting up of the IMC in 2000.

Another vexed conversation is the “Assassination of Character.” On this we stand with you. No one should be allowed to rob a man off his “Good name.” However, our research over the years shows that majority of the Criminal Libel cases are filed by politicians and majority of the victims have been journalists. Let me hasten to say that when the

public learns that a politician has locked up a journalist, they do not care to find out why? They do not stop to ask the question whether the journalist was right or wrong – what the public does is immediately support the journalist, and the politician becomes a subject of derision and hate. What we offer, and what sadly has always been around, is a restoration of dignity by compelling the media house to not only publish a retraction itself, but also pay other media houses to do the same, so that the retraction gets a wider coverage than the offending article or broadcast.

Additionally, it offers compensation which the criminal libel does not prescribe for. The Civil Libel laws have always been around and if used the government cannot be accused of muzzling the press. The Criminal Libel has broken down the biggest and best run printing establishment owned by native Sierra Leoneans – Atlantic Printers. Nowadays the big contracts to print exercise books and text books for the Free Quality Education are won foreign printing enterprises. We urge you to think Sierra Leone and help our own people to develop our local capacities, not kill them. This is the true spirit of the local content policy.

These days the question is being asked why are so few women in top positions in the media, the simple answer is that they are afraid of going to jail. We the men can cope but women just cannot. So please repeal so that more women can hold top positions in the media. It is called affirmative action.

IMC BILL

Before the repeal bill was withdrawn the calls we were hearing from parliament and from the public was for proper safeguards. Before you now is the IMC Bill. This bill contains all the safeguards the public has been concerned about. At the level of SLAJ we support the enforcement measures.

But let me sound a note of caution here. Already I know for a fact that your colleague MPs now own radio stations, from the edges of the Liberian border in Pujehun right through to Freetown and the rest of the country. So when you deliberate on the IMC Bill let us all be cautious so that we make laws that are not for journalists alone, but for MP’s as well as the general citizenry. In Ghana after the Criminal Libel laws were repealed a lot of the politicians opened radio stations. So much so that their IMC Bill, which had been drafted and was waiting to be taken to Parliament, is now gathering dust as the politicians are no longer interested. I note that you are wiser as you have asked for both to be brought before you.

We wish to lobby you on the specifics, which largely has to do with maintaining our SLAJ representative on the board of the IMC, including sole proprietorship as an option to register and cut down on the bureaucracy of registration and monitoring. We believe IMC must not become an Audit firm and start demanding our accounts and looking at them as and when they feel. IMC should restrict themselves to regulating the practice and ethics of the profession. NASSIT have specialized courts now, and also the NRA when these institutions act on their own nobody accuses them of muzzling the press, but when IMC starts to do the work of NASSIT and NRA it is seen as a ploy by government to muzzle the press. So we urge you to reject this provision. The IMC must not be overburdened with the work of other statutory bodies so that it can work effectively and efficiently.

Let me end with this little illustration to give you a feel of how difficult our work is. In a little village in the UK a Catholic Nun had a Donkey and wanted to let the donkey help her make money. So she entered the donkey in a race. The Donkey was very fast and won the race. In those days the other name for donkey was Ass spelt ASS and I mean no disrespect here. So the next day the local paper carried the headline “Local Nun has winning Ass.” She entered the donkey in a second race and again it won. The local papers headline read “Nun has best Ass in town.” The priest is annoyed, but the money is good. So the Nun entered the donkey for the district race, and again it won. The paper headline was “Nun shows entire district her Ass.” The Priest could not bear this so he ordered the Nun to sell the donkey and so she put out advertisement in the newspaper.

The next story headline was “Nun offers her ass for 50 pounds.” The Priest is now furious and says she must get rid of the donkey at all cost. The next headline was “Nun desperate for someone to own her Ass.” The Bishop sees the problem and offers to take in the donkey. The next headline was “Bishop loves Nun’s Ass.” The Priest fainted.

The point I want to make here is journalism is a wonderfully creative profession. When it is practiced well, everyone enjoys it; but when it is practiced badly it is bad. Ghana repealed the Criminal Libel, and the State is still functioning. Liberia is into their second year after their repeal and the state has not gone up in flames; in fact, they do not even have an IMC.

So let me end by saying, in every profession there are bad eggs. From politics to police, from teachers to lawyers and engineers, from surgeons to statesmen. What we are asking you to do is not to throw out the baby with the birth water. The water is dirty but the baby has life and will grow. Help us make that baby grow. We are in this together.

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