Freedom of expression is regarded as a fundamental right in democratic society. The
right of the press to report and comment on matters of public concern is essential to create and maintain an informed electorate.
However, it is often said that freedom of expression is not absolute. No individual or
Media Organization has the right to knowingly publish false and damaging statements about another individual without consequence.
Individuals whose reputations have been harmed as a result of such publications should have the right to redress through the civil courts.
No Journalist should go to jail for a libel matter, instead another mechanism should be used or put in place to ensure that the matter is settled by a claim or apology.
Criminal libel by contrast, is an unfortunate and outdated legacy of autocratic, totalitarian, or colonial states and has no place in any society that claims to support the concept of freedom of expression.
It is inimical to democracy because it strangles dissent and debate, punishing legitimate criticism of Government Officials and Institutions. Too often, it serves no
purpose other than to provide Government and Government Officials with the power, through intimidation or post-publication sanctions, to discourage Journalists, Scholars, Politicians and ordinary citizens from expressing critical views that might be deemed offensive, insulting or defamatory.
For sometime now, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has been fighting to get this draconian law repealed, but up till now the Government is dragging its feet and they are yet to respond in the affirmative.
Well I want to give my own opinion on this very important matter, which I hope this new executive would once and for all try to settle.
As I mentioned earlier, no Journalist should go to jail for libel, but the aggrieved party too has a right to seek redress.
I believe that the Government is dragging its feet because they don’t want to repeal the law and give Journalists a field day without no checks and balances.
This is the problem Ghana is facing now. Since the libel law was repealed in 2000, the public has been left unprotected and many officials are calling for it to be restored again because they claim Media Practitioners have been very irresponsible.
I think the Criminal Libel law should be repealed but should be replaced by a pool. This pool should be set up by the Independent Media Commission and the Government where in every Newspaper, Radio or TV Station is requested to pay a certain amount of money; example five million Leones as one of the prerequisite for registration.
In Sierra Leone, most of the media houses are not viable so when they lost out in the courts or IMC, they fail to settle the claims. This is why the pool should be established prior to operations.
In the developed Countries they don’t need the pool as the media houses are viable and can/will settle all claims within the stipulated period. This is the only way the populace can be protected, with Journalists enhancing quality.
If anyone is charged for libel and fined, the amount would be deducted from the money paid into the pool.
Every year all media houses should make sure the said amount is paid before starting operations.
With this pool, the populace would feel safer as they too have the right to privacy and their credibility.
On the side of the media, it will improve the quality of news and will lessen the everyday yellow, smearing and sensationalism kind of journalism practiced.This system is working across Europe as most media houses are becoming more responsible in their reporting. Editors and Reporters are being fired because of inaccuracies as the monies paid out to claims and damages are affecting the proprietors.
Under Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and
Fundamental Freedoms, freedom of expression is protected as a universal although not absolute right, as no individual has the right to publish false and damaging statements of others without a consequence.
We journalist have our own rights to protect so also is the public; so repealing the libel law, means we should have an alternative that will make all parties feel safer.
This is one of the reasons why the IMC was set up to arbitrate between the public and the media. If they fail, then the aggrieved party should seek redress in the courts of law.
We are aspiring for more quality and responsibility from the media in the 21st century so by setting up the pool, it would make us more responsible considering the amount we would have to paid into the pool before registration.
Britain set up the Press Complaints Commission to arbitrate between the public and the media and in 2006 alone, they dealt with 3,325 cases in which 90% of the complainants were happy with the outcome. Thirty-one (31) of the cases were adjudicated by the Commission before being resolved as the complainants were initially not satisfied by the action recommended by the Commission.
20% of the cases attracted claims and all were settled within the given time.
Media is a big business everywhere in the world, publishers and editors operating media outlets are not doing it for charity, but for profit; so any arguments about the money going to the pool to serve as an alternative to the criminal libel law, I think would not be feasible. Also some would argue that it is a way to stifle the media; I don’t think so, the freedom of expression is there and will never be tampered with, as the pool creates a level playing field for all.
A Journalist too has his/her reputation to protect and has the right to seek redress if libeled upon; if he is successful he has right to claims.
In 2006, Barclay brothers’ owner of the Daily Telegraph in London sued The Times in a French Court for an article published in the Times in 2004. The action was brought against the Times, its Editor, Robert Thomson, and Media Editor, Dan Sabbagh.
Few years ago in Sierra Leone, Richie Olu-Gordon of the Peep Magazine sued Sorie Fofanah of the Vision for libel; and Sorie Fofanah lost out and apologized.
The Government would find it difficult to repeal this law if there is no substitute. Even up to 2005 in Salt Lake City; criminal libel law was still operative although they have now succeeded in repealing it.
Many people across the world argue that freedom of the press is a central right in democratic societies, essential for allowing the population oversight of the Government.
However, this function depends not only on an active and energetic press, but on a truthful and honest press which has respect for its readers and sources and which does not interfere with the legitimate operations of the public figures and institutions.
Against this beneficial role of the press, many people think that newspapers and magazines spend too much time pandering lewd thoughts and idle curiosity, while ruining the lives of public and private figures and their families.
If this idea holds sway in the public’s mind, then SLAJ need to think seriously of substituting the libel law or else the Government would always use the delaying tactics not to repeal it.
In the famous Areopagitica, written by John Milton in 1644, he said and I quote: “And through all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and her Falsehood grapple; who never knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
John Milton as far back 1644 was campaigning for freedom to write and publish without Government approval. Even after all these years Areopagitica stands as the unmatched statement for freedom of thought and its corresponding freedoms of speech and the press.
By Austin Thomas