The Sierra Leone Telegraph published an article this month, “Sierra Leone Parliament to discuss repeal of seditious libel laws next month”. It chronicled a recently gazetted Bill entitled “The Public Order (Amendment) Act, 2019”, in a bid to seek “to amend the Public Order Act, 1965 (POA), (Act No. 46 of 1965) by repealing Part 5 which deals with defamatory and seditious libel and to provide for other related matters. But what is the Public Order Act? This act has been divided into many facets, but for the purpose of this article, much of the focus will be on Act 46, Part 5 of the POA. In its unadulterated form, the POA was designed to guard against public crime; “which involves acts that interfere with the operations of society and the ability of people to function efficiently” (Siegel, 2004). In its aesthetic form, a behaviour or action is considered criminal because it is contrary to shared social values, norms, and customs of a given society at a given time. In essence, a crime is any action that contravenes the law.
We know that the POA is one of the vestiges and heirlooms we inherited from our colonial masters; when the Governor General was the head of state. Since our nation loosened the shackles of colonial rule, the use of this Public Order Act, 1965 (POA) has been used, abused and misused by every government in our country. Successive governments have consistently, but at various severity used /misused this act to muzzle opposition, criticism and alternative opinions throughout. The Act was intended to insulate our society against public crime, but unfortunately our governments have used and abused it to generate protective clothing for what can only be described as political crime.
As a society, we should be able to distinguish a public order crime from a political crime. With a public order crime, there is a victim and it is the community that usually suffers in most cases; whereas in the latter, the state perceives itself to be the victim, and therefore criminalises any behaviour it considers a threat to its rule. This is where the waters have been muddled up; for in spite of its laudable intent, the POA, 1965 has been abused to prop successive governments and to gag dissenting or critical voices. When journalists write about what the state sees as false, misleading or threatening to their “sanctity”, the CID headquarters or Pademba Road Prisons seem to be the default destination; and that is even before a charge sheet is prepared.
The misuse of this act has become so bad that even when journalists publish the “truth”, Section 28 (1) states that the truth of statement published is not a defence. Interestingly, the anomaly of this Act has not gone unnoticed, and there is no government past and present, that has not recognised this and promised to repeal it. Repealing this Act has always been one of the cornerstones of the unending manifestoes of successive governments. This Act is so bad that even the International Community has felt attracted to the idea to repeal.
This was ably demonstrated by the very colonial masters the British, who bequeathed to us this human rights defying legal heirloom. The Department for International Development and Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued a press release on 4 October 2016, that the “British High Commission supports the reform of Sierra Leone’s criminal and seditious libel laws”. A symposium at the Miatta Conference Hall was attended on 27th September, 2016 by representatives from the British High Commission, Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the Irish Embassy; in support for the repeal of the seditious and libel laws within Part 5 of the POA 1965. It was during that conference that the Head of Political, Press and Public Affairs Annup Vyas pledged on behalf of the British government, £240 million in support of a 2 year drive for President Koroma to bring meaningful and lasting change in priority sectors: health, education, energy, water, social protection, private sector development and governance. Mr Vyas stressed in a caveat then, that a change in the POA 1965, was an IMPORTANT aspect of President Koroma’s recovery agenda. President Koroma and his then Minister of information Mohamed Koroma swore blind, their commitment to repeal the Act then. Mornehhhh . Now you are wondering whether this was the birthplace of the much vaunted “Agenda for Prosperity”. The rest is history and here we are today again with the same promises, same commitments and same mantra. It time to see what new direction the “New Direction” will take this time.
History shows that nothing has ever come from all these lofty promises that successive governments have made to tackle this legal eyesore; even though it has always been the usual mantra in their manifestoes. Its no secret that our country has gone from a One Party state via a period of interregna to attain a democratic status. Nevertheless, maintaining this Act will do very little to raise our country’s profile on the good governance Richter scale. If any thing, our democratic heads will still be under the political Sword of Damocles.
In a recent piece by Dr Sama Banya (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-30/11/19), he stated that his attention was drawn to a recent piece that “purports to be front page headline of the opposition APC mouth piece – the WE YONE NEWSPAPER, which reads: “APC to declare war if its leaders are taken to court for corrupt practices resulting from the Commissions of Inquiry (COI).” If this report is true, this would not only be worrisome, but ironically undermines all the efforts and part of the argument to repeal the POA 1965. It is one thing to repeal the seditious and libel side of the act; but it is an entirely different thing to threaten the security and peace of the state. Part of the POA 1965 criminalises the actions of a person “who makes use of any threat, abusive, insulting, obscene or profane language or says or sings any insulting or offensive song or ballad, or makes a noise to the annoyance of any person in any place.”
Not withstanding the legal gymnastics of the POA 1965, it is difficult and unfathomable to imagine the mind-set of any individual who would threaten our country with war again; especially when you consider that as a nation, we are still reeling from the afterbirth of the decade long war. If this report is true, such a threat is nothing short of a criminal or treasonable offence. These are some of the kind of behaviours you get from irresponsible journalism. Two Rwandan journalists, Ferdinand Nahimana and Hassan Ngeze were sentenced to life and a third for 35 years, for their roles in fuelling the genocide during which 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were massacred. In what was described as their “hate media”, they reportedly used phrases like, “the graves are not yet full”, “let whatever is smouldering erupt”, “exterminate the Tutsi cockroaches” etc. This just goes to prove a point that one does not need to fire a shot in anger to unleash a bloodbath; and this gives some credence to “the pen is mightier than the sword”. “Desktop journalism” in the wrong hands could be a lethal weapon
Interestingly, the name of the paper WE YONE does leave one with a sense of patriotism. It does make one feel that We Yone newspaper is for We Yone Country. The other sad part of this episode is the deafening silence of the APC Party, which the “We Yone” paper supposedly promotes and represents. The Party has reportedly neither distanced itself from, nor condemned the paper for such reckless behaviour. Unfortunately, such stance by our political parties is not confined to the APC Party alone. There have been situations in the past wherein members, thugs and so called supporters of the SLPP Party have engaged in wanton destruction, intimidation and blatant thuggery. It is commendable that President Bio apologised on behalf of his government when the ACC attempted to dish out social justice to some “teachers”. However, there have been many instances where our political parties have remained selectively silent when their supporters have engaged in violence. Sadly, our current political climate is littered with and measured by an ethically deprived moral compass. When one political party is guilty of wrongdoing, such behaviours are seemingly justified by reference to a similar behaviour of the party opposite. By the time you finish reading this piece, some political historian is going to remind us of an SLPP leaning newspaper that did the same during Sir Albert Margai’s reign. The appetite to take the moral high ground is premium.
The SLPP and APC are aware of atrocities carried out in their names, but lack the moral courage or fibre to condemn them; for fear of losing their base. Their silence compounds their guilty of complicity. Our Lives begin to End on the Day we Become Silent about the Things that Matter (M.L.K). Those who trade on the tribal, religious and regional gullibility of our people should remember that we don’t need war to live in peace; for it is a cowardly escape hatch from the problems of peace. Peace can never be achieved through violence; the last refuge of the incompetent. Keep any violence in the mind………Where it actually belongs.
It is no secret that some of our political parties thrive on an atmosphere of violence; but as a nation, a people and a country, we should be constipated with violence by now. Former President Koroma was fondly known by his disciples as “The Messiah” and “World Best”. President Bio’s apostles call him “Talk and Do” President. With a catalogue of promises and failures to repeal the POA 1965 by successive governments, is it time for President Bio and his government to do the do, after all those years of talk the talk? And while we are at it, any chance of visiting the small matter of voting rights for dual citizens? Just checking.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off, when you leave the room.