Reporters Without Borders voiced interest today at statements by Sierra Leonean officials that President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is at last ready to amend a criminal defamation law included in the Public Order Act, which dates back to colonial times. The law’s victims include For Di People editor Paul Kamara, who was unjustly sentenced to four years in prison in October 2004.
“There is an urgent need for improvement in Sierra Leone,” the organisation said. “We would clearly be pleased if the country were finally to conform to democratic standards of press freedom by overhauling its retrograde legislation. To show goodwill and facilitate a calm start to talks, the authorities should begin by freeing Kamara from Pademba Road prison, where he has just completed the first year of his sentence.”
Bernadette Cole, the head of the Independent Media Commission (which oversees the country’s news media), announced on 7 October that she had received a letter from President Kabbah in which he called for the criminal defamation law to be amended. Her announcement came a day after a seminar on the role of the media which the United Nations Development Programme organised for government officials and privately-owned publications in the western city of Aberdeen.
“My dear colleagues, whatever our differences or positions on the Public Order Act, we must seize this opportunity to have the draconian defamation laws repealed,” Cole said at a news conference.
At a meeting with journalists, presidential spokesman Alhaji Kemoh Kanji attributed the initiative to “President Kabbah’s new way of thinking about freedom of expression and the free press.” Justice minister and attorney-general Frederick Carew, previously one of the law’s leading advocates, said: “My office is open. Like the president, I am ready to cooperate with journalists to promote press freedom.”
Director of public prosecution Oladipoh Robin Mason said he was ready to proceed with the amendment as soon as he got the “green light.” He stressed however that the amendments would only affect defamation and not the rest of the Public Order Act.
Under this controversial 1965 law, which has repeatedly been condemned by national and international press freedom groups, the publication, distribution or possession of content likely to provoke “public disaffection” with the president or other officials is punishable by up to seven years in prison for the offenders and the closure of their news media. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists has said it will not withdraw its petition to the Supreme court to have the act declared unconstitutional.
Kamara was given two 24-month jail terms on 5 October 2004 as a result of an action brought by President Kabbah over an article published in For Di People on 3 October 2003 headlined, “Speaker of Parliament challenge! Kabbah is a true convict!”
The article said a commission of enquiry found Kabbah guilty of fraud in 1968 when he was permanent secretary of Trade, and argued that it was unconstitutional of the parliamentary spokesman to claim that Kabbah now had immunity as president. Requests by Kamara’s lawyers for his release on bail were turned down.
For Di People acting editor Harry Yansaneh died of internal injuries on 28 July 2005, two months after being badly beaten by thugs allegedly acting on the orders of ruling party parliamentarian Fatmata Hassan Komeh. Although found guilty of homicide, Yansaneh’s assailants were freed on bail.