President Ernest Bai Koroma yesterday affirmed his commitment to passing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill and repealing Criminal Libel Laws after a group of about 50 journalists marched to State House on International Press Freedom Day.
He said the bill, which would open up a swath of government records to public view, will become law “pretty, pretty soon.”
He added this is not the first time journalists have asked for the hated Criminal Libel Laws to be repealed. The 1965 Public Order Act, still in effect today, makes it a crime to publish information considered libelous. Journalists have campaigned for years to have the sections dropped, arguing that the law is outdated and infringes on freedom of the press.
President Koroma said the matter is under consideration, and praised journalists for coming “a long way” in their development.
“But, like all of us, you’re not there yet,” said President Koroma, adding, “there is room for improvement.”
The President called for the government, journalists and other parties to “engage” in a discussion about what media law the country should have, after agreeing to meet the demonstrators when they arrived at State House.
The demonstration, organized by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), saw some 50 journalists and supporters march from Campbell Street to Tower Hill and State House to present their petition to the Speaker, Abel Strong and the President.
Demonstrators donned SLAJ shirts that said “A free press – a prosperous nation” and chanted “Down with Criminal Libel” and other slogans.
They waved placards reading, “President Koroma should fulfill his promise to repeal the Criminal Libel Law,” and “don’t criminalize us in the line of duty.”
Waiting for government officials at the front of Parliament, demonstrators sang “We shall overcome.”
SLAJ President Umaru Fofanah presented a petition to Justice Strong and said he was concerned that no one, including Minister of Information and Communication, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, seemed to know the status of the FOI Bill, which was first introduced to Parliament last year.
Justice Strong said government is “working” on the Bill and it takes time, adding that the Minister of Information and Communication is not a Member of Parliament and doesn’t know what’s happening there.
After President Koroma’s address, Mr. Fofanah said he was impressed with the President’s commitment to the Bill and to considering the Libel Law, pointing out that it is the first time the President has met journalists on International Press Freedom Day.
Freedom of the press, and of speech and expression, is guaranteed in Sierra Leone’s Constitution, Act No. 46 of 1991.
The FOI Bill would allow the public to request information from public and, in some circumstances, private authorities and force the release of non-exempt documents. It would also require the disclosure of a host of information on government authorities, such as salaries, budgets, subsidies and contracts.
By Alhaji Manika Kamara