Sierra Leone's criminal libel law sparks barber boycott

By Umaru Fofana on November 10, 2009 2:24 PM ET

My looks have completely changed in recent months. Long hair now colonizes my chin and my head. Never in my adult life have I waited longer than a week without a shave or a haircut, let alone for four months. One ends up doing the strangest things for press freedom in Sierra Leone. The writer without hair

It all started when Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court (which doubles as its constitutional court), missed a constitutionally set deadline to deliver a ruling—in this case on our country’s obnoxious criminal defamation law. Section 120/16 of the country’s 1991 constitution states that all courts must deliver a ruling within 90 days of final arguments.

The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) took the criminal libel law to court in February 2008 in hopes that the measure would be repealed. It took the country’s highest court a year to hear the matter. And when the court finally did, it disregarded rules it compels others to respect. Without explanation, the court has yet to rule. If the old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, then Sierra Leone’s journalists are being denied justice.

Our newly hirsute author

In July, SLAJ embarked on an indefinite news blackout on the activities of the judiciary as a way to prod the court to issue a ruling; at the same time I vowed not to have my haircut until a ruling was handed down. SLAJ suspended the blackout after receiving assurances a ruling would be issued, but I refused to call off my barber boycott until we have a verdict in hand.

My new looks have caused me embarrassment and inconvenience. Immigration officials have stopped me because my looks no longer match my passport photo. My wife does not like it, although she is coping with it now.

SLAJ wanted to stage a peaceful protest march over the issue but we were barred without explanation by Police Inspector General of Police Brima Acha Kamara. Not even the usual pretext—that such a march would pose a threat to security—was given. Again, this is a right guaranteed under the law that was denied us.

I would not be surprised if the court finally delivers a ruling that allows criminal libel to remain in force in our country. But the good thing is that it will remind President Ernest Bai Koroma, if he needs reminding, that he promised during his campaign to review the law if he won the election.

SLAJ was founded primarily to resist this law. I may not be the first to fight against it, but I am determined to be the last.

Umaru Fofana is president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists.

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