Government poised to decriminalise libel

Expression

President Bio: decriminalisation of libel is imminent

During a speech at the inaugural Media Cocktail, gathering over 120 journalists, editors and media owners, on 5th December 2018, President Julius Maada Bio said that his government was in 'an advanced stage' to repeal part V of the 1965 Public Order Act that criminalises libel. He said

"Part Five of Sierra Leone’s Public Order Act criminalises any publication that is deemed defamatory or seditious and has been used as a regime to unduly target and imprison media practitioners and silence dissident views." 

Despite the positive direction of travel, he did however also stipulate that the repeal does not "imply softening the legal regime or grant a carte blanche to journalists to defame people". Additionally, the president said that a budget was foreseen for a subvention with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). President Bio had already made the commitment during the state opening of the Parliament on 10th May 2018, to "repeal the seditious libel law", encourage investment by the private sector in the media, and provide budgetary support to SLAJ, among others. 

Threats against and assault of journalists

On 16th January 2019, supporters of the political opposition party All People’s Congress (APC) attacked five journalists from the media group Africa Young Voices (AYV). According to a statement by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the journalists gathered at the residence of the former president Ernest Bai Koroma in Makeni, when they were attacked by APC supporters and their equipment was seized. The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), who spoke with a source within AYF, said that the five journalists were attacked after the APC party’s district deputy organising secretary asked the journalists to leave and accused them of being aligned to the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). AYV later filed a complaint with the Police and threatened to boycott future APC events in case of further attacks.

On 18th January 2019, BBC's correspondent Umaru Fofana reported that he had received death threats through Whatsapp from persons believed to be APC supporters. The threats followed an interview, aired on BBC, of Fofana with Sierra Leone’s former vice president, Victor Bockarie Foh. The journalist said to the Sierra Leone Telegraph that he had also been subjected to attacks and verbal abuse by APC supporters on 31st December 2018 at the headquarters of the APC in Freetown while covering a story. Fofana filed a complaint at the Criminal Investigations Department for the threats against his life. President Kevin Lewis of the SLAJ said in a statement:

"This nonsense must stop. The APC cannot continue to treat journalists as enemies and physically attack them whenever they have an issue. The Police should not wait for another journalist to die before they take the necessary action. This impunity must end."

Association

In a statement on 24th February 2019, a group of 34 national and international civil society organisations condemned the excessive force and brutality used by security forces against communities and the repression of land rights defenders in Sahn Malen Chiefdom, in the district of Pujehun. The confrontations are part of an ongoing land conflict between communities and the multinational palm oil and rubber plantation management corporation SOCFIN. On 21st January 2019, two people were killed, reportedly by gun shots, during clashes between community members and security forces protecting the assets of the SOCFIN, which has acquired more than 18,000 hectares of land in the region since 2011. The plot is used for an industrial palm oil plantation. The CSOs say that police and military have raided surrounding villages, while people were beaten, and houses vandalised. Additionally, police arrested 15 people. The CSOs said: 

"Since SOCFIN began its operations communities opposed to its land deal have been systematically criminalised, culminating with last month’s tragic events, and hundreds of land rights defenders have faced arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment."

Peaceful Assembly

Doctors in Sierra Leone's public hospitals went on a strike on 4th December 2018 to condemn the low wages and poor working conditions. The strike followed a twenty-one day ultimatum initiated by the Junior Doctors Association of Sierra Leone (JUDASL), and later followed by the umbrella union Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA). The strike ended on 18th December 2018. In a joint statement of the Ministry of Health and the heads of the JUDASL and  SLMDA, the government agreed to "on a timeline to respond to all concerns raised that will invariably start to improve the delivery of healthcare in Sierra Leone. This is in line with the government’s commitment to improve healthcare delivery and conditions of service for health workers nationwide." The strike paralysed the already vulnerable health system in the country. The 2014-2016 Ebola crisis in the country killed 250 health workers of a total of 4,000 people.