Journalists have urged the government to follow the example of the Ugandan Supreme Court and repeal laws that curtail freedom of speech. In August, the Ugandan government abolished sedition laws that had previously been used to prosecute and criminalise journalists and politicians. Campaigners described the win as a victory for those who felt that they could not previously freely express themselves.
The country’s association for journalists (SLAJ) have been campaigning for similar laws in the country to be overturned. ‘Sierra Leone should conform to the norms of civilised standards and repeal the Criminal and Seditious Libel law’, said Umaru Fofana, president of SLAJ P. ‘This is as bad a law today as it has always been, and it is bad for journalists and non-journalists alike’ he continued.
In ‘08, SLAJ sought a judicial review at the Supreme Court of the country’s criminal and seditious libel law as contained in the 1965 Public Order Act. However the court ruled against the case claiming that the law does not put journalists in imminent danger.
Earlier this year, President Bai Koroma reiterated his pledge that was made in his election campaign and during his ‘08 speech at Chatham House promising to repeal the criminal and seditious libel law; nothing concrete has been done by the executive to fulfil this promise after three years in office. Recently again promised to review such laws before the end of his term in 2012.
Critics have argued that Koroma’s reluctance to repeal these laws is a reflection of the many unfulfilled promises of African leaders. It is also a reminder of the leverage of the executive branch in enabling and disabling democracy in Africa.
The courage of the judicial officials, who decided to defy the overarching strength of political leaders in Uganda, however also illustrates the changing power relations amongst executive, legislative and judicial branches in some African countries.
A panel of five judges ruled unanimously that the legislation infringed upon freedom of speech guaranteed by the country’s constitution. The law – which dated back to the days of British colonialism but was officially incorporated into the Ugandan constitution 1995- had previously described sedition as anything spoken of, or written that incited sectarianism and hatred towards the country’s president, executive or judiciary.
Organisations like SLAJ are not alone in their campaigning. Across Africa, there are similar murmurs from bodies that are campaigning for increased flexibility in media laws. The recent Amnesty International report on Rwanda, as well as controversy over legislation in South Africa, Kenya and Chad are also a clear demonstration of this.
Countries like Sierra Leone need to take note of the pace of change in regions like Uganda. It is imperative that African media are guaranteed positive press laws to ensure unfettered probing and investigation, so that political leaders are held to account.