“The new government has still not given the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) prosecutorial powers as such it remains a vehicle without an engine. It can bark but cannot bite. It can investigate but it cannot prosecute”.
This was disclosed by Melron Nicol-Wilson, the director of the Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), during the launching of a handbook entitled “Criminalization of Freedom of Expression in Sierra Leone – Time for Change” at the Miatta conference hall on Thursday.
The director added that, “ACC must be given powers to institute prosecutions and not to be sending files to the Attorney–General for decisions whether to prosecute or not”.
Mr Melron Nicol-Wilson noted that the government must also support the establishment of a National Legal Aid Board which would provide free legal services to poor Sierra Leoneans in conflict and in contact with the law.
The director recalled that in 1965 an act of Parliament –the Public Order Act- was enacted, adding that this law dealt with a number of issues of public concern such as public insult and provocation among others.
He disclosed that part five of this law dealt with defamatory and seditious libel and criminalized the malicious publication of any false statement about an individual that would defame his character or publication of any false statement. In 1965, he said, “Freedom of Expression was not only criminalized in Sierra Leone but also in about one hundred countries around the world”.
The LAWCLA director pointed out that at the moment criminal defamatory and seditious libel laws were no longer operational in over 120 countries in the world but Sierra Leone shamelessly continued to maintain it in its statue books.
He stated that Section 25 of the Sierra Leone 1991 Constitution “guarantees protection of freedom of expression and the press. This constitutional safeguard has been eroded by the provisions of part five of the Public Order Act”.
The LAWCLA director cited that it was important to note that Section 171(5) of the very 1991 Constitution was very clear on the issue. “It provides that the constitution is the supreme law of Sierra Leone and any other law found to be inconsistent with any provision of the constitution shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void and of no effect.”
He revealed that, “the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up by the government after the civil and political impasse realized the global trend and recommended the repeal of provisions that create the offences of sedition and criminal libel, denouncing them as leftovers of the colonial era”.
Mr Melron Nicol-Wilson maintained that the goal of the handbook was to contextualize Sierra Leone’s domestic seditious and criminal defamation laws in terms of their compatibility with international human rights norms.
In her speech Elizabeth Alpha Lavalie, chairperson of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, said as a human rights activist she would not support any law that prevented the rights of an individual or group of persons.
She added that freedom of expression did not mean journalists should blackmail government officials or put them under fear, noting that journalists should be decent and should report the truth and nothing but the truth.
Giving his keynote address Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, the minister of Information and Communication, said as a one time journalist and past president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the 1965 Public Order Act had been manacled with demagogue on the act with reference to the anti-press provisions in sections 26, 27 and 33.
He added that, “the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) is a democratic one and has no intention to bring journalists to book”.
In launching the handbook Serry Kamal, the minister of Justice and Attorney General, said the government had an agenda for change and was willing to repeal the obnoxious Public Order Act.
By Abibatu Kamara