CPJ calls on Sierra Leone to decriminalize libel laws

March 17, 2008

President Ernest Bai Koroma
c/o The Embassy of Sierra Leone to the United States
1701, 19th St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Via fascimile: (202) 483-1793

Dear Mr. President,

We are writing to express our grave concern about the recent arrest of an editor and a publisher under criminal libel laws, despite your pledges to decriminalize libel cases in Sierra Leone.

Jonathan Leigh, the managing editor of the private daily The Independent Observer returned to court today to face criminal libel charges under sections 32-37 of the 1965 Public Order Act after the minister of Transport filed a complaint. Leigh was arrested in February following two articles in his paper that accused the minister of using his office to acquire real estate and kickbacks from the head of the Maritime Administration.

Also this month, the publisher of the private daily The Awareness Times, Sylvia Blyden,was arrested and detained by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Freetown police for a caricature of you that was published in their February 29 edition. A police source told CPJ that Blyden will be formally charged with the offense of “ridiculing the president” under the 1965 Public Order Act.

These cases are at variance with assertions you made in January during a meeting with the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists in Freetown and in February during your “Agenda for Change” at Chatham House in London that you would repeal the Public Order Act. Furthermore, Justice Minister Abdul Serry-Kamal announced in February that the Law Reform Commission will begin the process of repealing criminal libel laws. According to the World Editor’s Forum, Vice President Samuel Sam Soumana asked the commission “to expunge all laws dealing with freedom of expression including the 1965 Public Order Act.”

CPJ calls on you to follow through with your commitment to review these outdated laws, and to urge the courts to declare active criminal libel cases null and void. Only a muffled, censored press can exist as long as the ad hoc criminal libel provisions of the Public Order Act remain in place. According to CPJ research, government officials have used the criminal defamation law six times since mid-2005 to silence their critics.

Journalists in Sierra Leone are fighting repression by bringing an unprecedented lawsuit to the Supreme Court. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists filed their suit in February seeking to overturn criminal libel laws. The lawsuit draws attention to the constitutional protection given to freedom of expression under Section 25, Chapter III, of the 1991 constitution. Such constitutional protection, the lawsuit reads, clearly calls into question the validity of provisions 32-37 of the 1965 Public Order Act. This freedom is also protected in a number of international treaties to which Sierra Leone is a signatory: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Africa Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the Johannesburg Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Information.

We would also like to remind you that almost three years have passed without any convictions of the murderers of Harry Yansaneh, the former editor of the private weekly For Di People. A judicial inquest in 2005 revealed that Yansaneh died of kidney failure caused by a severe beating two months earlier. According to local reports, Yansaneh alleged prior to his death that former Tonkolili Sierra Leone People’s Party Member of Parliament Fatmata Hassan had used her children to conduct the attack. Hassan has not been charged and her two sons and daughter are living freely in the United Kingdom, according to CPJ research. We call on you to revive investigations into the murder of Yansaneh and ensure that attacks against journalists do not go unpunished in Sierra Leone.

The successful August 2007 elections marked a turning point in Sierra Leone’s history as your presidency ushered in a new era of democracy for the country. But impunity in the case of a murdered journalist as well as the continued use of provisions within the 1965 Public Order Act to arbitrarily silence journalists tarnishes this historical achievement.

We urge you to repeal the criminal libel laws immediately and revive investigations into the murder of Harry Yansaneh during this crucial time in your country.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.


Joel Simon
Executive Director