The reported physical attack on the vice president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists is yet to be condemned by any one in authority. Abdul Rahman Swarray, who majors in sports journalism, was reportedly assaulted by some players of the national football team, Leone Stars.
According to reports it followed Swarray’s resignation a couple of weeks hitherto, from Kalleone Radio over an apparent disagreement with his employer, the Leone Stars captain, Mohamed Kallon.
This is certainly not a piece about Kallon, who has a stake in the media in that he owns a radio station where Swarray used to work. But in the presumed views of Kallon the SLAJ vice president went too far for merely saying the truth and what everybody else had been saying and continues to say. Leone Stars are not giving their best to the beautiful game. I have not spoken to Kallon but I hear that the Leone Stars captain did not take kindly to this. He authorised a query, Swarray felt sullied and he resigned.
As if that was not enough, some Leone Stars players reportedly attacked Swarray in an apparent bid to settle the old score of them having been criticised however constructively. The FA has not come out on this. Nor has the ministry of sports or of information for that matter. Worse still, even the very SLAJ came out too late on the matter, and the press statement was so watered down.
Such is the tight corner journalists find themselves in that even though our profession is the only one guaranteed by law (Chapter Three of the 1991 constitution), it is that which is left most vulnerable. The criminal libel law leaves the onus of accuracy of a report on the journalist and not on the challenger or complainant. And, it would seem, history has come full throttle. Here is why. From the outside looking in, the law is obnoxious. But from the inside looking within, happy go lucky; it is a prefect friend that must be kept around at all cost.
In the 1960s, the Sierra Leone People’s Party government did not like the way a certain journalist was practising his trade. In an apparent bid to muzzle the then editor of We Yone newspaper and his likes, they criminalised libel. Rightly or wrongly, I understand that the APC, in opposition then, argued against the promulgation of the law. Not too long from 1965, the APC came to power. If anything, they thrived on the law they had so vociferously criticised. Before the single party state was brought upon us, the SLPP did not like the law they had passed.
Again, when the SLPP returned to power in 1996, one of their best friends was the criminal libel law. This made them so hated that when soldiers seized power in 1997, they used that to try to appease journalists. It did not work out. Journalists were at the vanguard in the struggle against the AFRC junta. We were killed! We were maimed! We were tortured! Hardly does anybody think let alone talk about that these days. All they do is call for our crucifixion.
It can be argued that the role journalists played to get rid of the AFRC softened the mind of the SLPP, or may be of the man who became Minister of Information, Dr Julius Spencer. In an apparent move to get rid of the law, he instituted the setting-up of the Independent Media Commission. They are no doubt perfect, but like them or not, the IMC have proved very relevant in today’s journalism with many members of the public, including the Office of the President, taking cases to them. This and the way the commission handled the recent case involving the opposition Unity Radio are proof that we are better off without the criminal libel law. Despite that, or maybe because of it, there is an apparent dither in the way the courts are handling the challenge by journalists who have gone to court to have the criminal libel law repealed from the law books.
When he was leader of the opposition, Ernest Bai Koroma did two things that left an indelible impression on me. He led his APC party to stand up against granting indemnity to US citizens in Sierra Leone, wanted by the International Criminal Court. And he almost always spoke out on his morbid disdain for the continued existence of the criminal libel law in the law books. He assured me then, more than once, how much he hated the law. A friend of the press he crossed me as. With three months shy of one year in office, the signs do not completely reflect that.
SLAJ, with support from the Society for Democratic Initiative, is in court over the criminal libel matter. The irony exists for all to see that despite the country’s constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression, which is what journalism is about, another law exists that inhibits that freedom – the criminal libel law. Whereas one does not wish to argue about the merits and demerits of the case since it is in court, one would imagine that the government would have spoken with the media fraternity, SLAJ, with a view to finding a way out on this law. This would have been enhanced not least because the current Minister of Information is the immediate past president of SLAJ. Since his appointment, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo has assured me, at least twice, that libel will be decriminalised under him. And I do not have reasons not to believe him. Therefore, I would expect the government not to ask the court to adjourn the matter indefinitely. As it is now, hardly can anything move the matter forward. Meanwhile the law that represses an enshrined right continues to flourish. It can continue so for ages, and it will be within the law.
It requires the courage the President Ernest Bai Koroma displayed yesterday by re-launching the opposition SLPP party Unity Radio, for him to face the bull by the horns and ask his Attorney General to repeal the law. He would help not only journalists by that singular action, but even the artistes as the law by extension affects authors and even musicians.
The counter argument to this has always been that some journalists are reckless even with the law in the books. And I dare use the same argument, hypothetically assuming they are right in thinking so, and ask what use is it of to maintain a law that is not serving as a deterrent? I think I know the answer. Keep it there so that when the journalist you are targeting falls foul of it, you put the law into full use. This is not only nonsensical, but also inhibiting democracy. I repeat, the best gift President Koroma will give to us is to request parliament to expunge criminal libel law from the books, once they are done passing the amendments to the Anti-Corruption Act. The country’s annals will always favour you Mr President. Just do not listen to some of your so-called advisers who tell you otherwise. They are the same people bidding to stifle your effort to give the ACC their badly-needed powers. More on that on Monday. Have a nice weekend, and I pray for Leone Stars’ first victory in the World Cup and Nations Cup campaign, as we clash tomorrow with Bafana Bafana. [email protected] is my email address. By Umaru Fofana