The Constitutional Court in Uganda has ruled that Uganda’s Seditious Libel Laws are in variance with the democratic constitution of that country but it is very important to note that the Courts, made up of five Judges sitting on a Panel, did not rule against the validity of Uganda’s Criminal Defamatory Libel Laws. This effectively means that whilst the Constitutional Court in Uganda recognised the rights of citizens to freely criticise the Government and Government functionaries, it also recognised the right of private Ugandan citizens to have a means of having a deterrent that protects them from criminally-minded journalists impinging on their reputations with published falsehoods.
Meanwhile, here in Freetown, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has issued a Press Release hailing the move to ban Seditious Libel in Uganda and calling on the Sierra Leone Government to emulate the move. The SLAJ Release, whilst loud on the invalidity of Uganda’s Seditious Libel Laws is however rather silent on the retention of Uganda’s Criminal Libel Laws. This is deliberate but unfortunate.
The reality, that many of Sierra Leone’s anti-Libel advocates regularly fail to highlight, is that Seditious Libel Laws are quite different from Criminal Defamatory Libel Laws. The former, (Seditious Libel) deals with libel against Government & Government officials and usually arouses deep-seated sympathy from the populace who see journalists charged with Seditious Libel as being persecuted by ‘powerful’ Government forces whilst the latter (Criminal Defamation) is solely applied for libel against ordinary citizens and usually arouses less interest and even less passions of sympathy.
Although both offences are defined within Part V of Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act No. 46 of 1965, they are listed in separate Sections of that Act. Criminal Defamation is defined by Sections 26 to 31, Publication of False News is defined in Section 32 whilst Seditious Libel itself is defined within Sections 33 to Section 35. They are all very distinct offences.
Aside their distinct listing, there are numerous other differences between the two forms of laws as listed in Sierra Leone’s Penal Code. For example, with Seditious Libel, there is a time limit of only 6 months within which the Government should charge any alleged offender. After a period of 6 months since the date of the alleged seditious publication, no-one can be charged in Sierra Leone for the offence of Seditious Libel. On the other hand, there is little boundary in terms of time limit for trying one for the offence of Criminal Libel. An offender can be charged and convicted several long years after committing an act of Criminal Defamatory Libel but he or she cannot be touched for Seditious Libel if six months has passed since the publication of the alleged seditious libel.
In other words, a journalist writing a libellous article against the Sierra Leone Government, can lie low for six months and then re-emerge after six months in hiding. Upon his re-appearance after six months, he cannot be charged for Seditious Libel whilst if it was a private citizen against whom the libellous article was published, that journalist can be charged for Criminal Libel, well after six months; infact, years and years after the published libel.
Another Difference between Criminal Defamatory Libel and Seditious Libel lies in the fact that with the former, an alleged offender can be convicted with evidence from only one witness whilst in the case of Seditious Libel, no-one can be convicted for Seditious Libel on the evidence of only one witness. The State must produce at least two persons to testify and well corroborate each other before a conviction of Seditious Libel can be passed on anyone in Sierra Leone.
Another important difference is that whilst in the case of Criminal Defamation, truth is not a defence unless the alleged offender can show the publication was in the public interest, in the case of Seditious Libel, I stand to be corrected by legal luminaries but my reading of those Laws is that Truth is AN ABSOLUTE DEFENCE against a charge of Seditious Libel.
To my understanding, with Criminal Defamation, it is clearly stated in Section 28(1) that “On the trial of an offence of libel against sections 26 or 27, ...the truth of the matters charged may be inquired into, but shall not amount to a defence, unless it was for the public benefit that the said matters charged should be published”. However, with Seditious Libel, and again, I must state that I stand ready to be corrected, Section 37 clearly states that no-one can be convicted for Seditious Libel if his or her intention is shown to have been any of the following truthful scenarios:
a) to show that the President has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures; or
b) to point out errors or defects in the government or Constitution of Sierra Leone as by law established or a legislation or in the administration of justice with a view to the remedying of such errors or defects; or
c) to persuade the Citizens or inhabitants of Sierra Leone to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Sierra Leone as by law established; or
d) to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters which are producing, or have a tendency to produce, feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Sierra Leone.
So, to end my piece today, let me once again state my popular belief that until such time as Parliament legislates for Libel Insurance as a pre-condition for operating all media-houses in this country, LONG MAY SIERRA LEONE’S LIBEL LAWS LIVE!!!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden is Publisher of Sierra Leone’s highest selling, fastest-selling and most widely read newspaper, the Awareness Times. She is a passionate advocate for the retention of the country’s Libel Laws until such time Parliament can legislate for all media houses to get Libel Insurance as a precondition for operating. She openly claims our Libel Laws are the only deterrent against Journalists who behave like Despots. She has been hunted by the Sierra Leone Police on at least two occasions for allegedly committing seditious libel against the current President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma. On both occasions, Sylvia Blyden was at the Criminal Department of the Police Headquarters to be “investigated” for Seditious Libel. On the first occasion, no charges were preferred whilst on the second occasion, after a nationwide Police manhunt for her and with the Police calling for her to be captured by anyone who sets eyes on her, she eventually turned herself in to the Police who subsequently charged her to Court but not under Section 33 for “Seditious Libel” but under Section 32 for “Publishing False News”. The Section 32 Charge was eventually dropped as it had no merit and had merely been a means of trying to intimidate a News Publisher widely perceived as too critical for the comfort of those in the corridors of power. However, even with the flagrant abuse of the Libel Laws by Sierra Leone Government officials trying to intimidate Sylvia Blyden, she has remained steadfast in her belief that the Libel Laws, if properly administered, are an essential ingredient in contemporary Sierra Leone until such time as Media Practitioners were first subjected to Insurance Policies that could take care of any civil judgment awarding financial costs against Libel.