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of Journalists (SLAJ) took the criminal libel law to court in February 2008 in hopes that the measure would be repealed.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.


Good luck in your fight. Your looks may not matter but if you get embarrassed by authorities my advice is you go back to your finer and easily recognizale image.

You go under the nickname of Obama and you can see how your namesake, President Obama, has remained unchanged by the rigours and stress of presidential life. Again, good luck.

My Dear Brother, you have a point here.

But remember this is Africa where authorities are happy to see millions go on hunger strike so that officials and their dependents have more than enough to eat.

So I am not sure growing an Osama Bin Ladin beard will move policy markers there to remove those laws.

As a Liberian I am wondering if I can intervene in your situation ---- the charles Taylor kind of intervention in Sierra Leone "in getting the RUF to stop all hostilities and return to the peace table."

By the way, what about sitting before the motorcade of President Koroma on Wilberforce or Siaka Stevens Street one morning?

He will not dare run over you. If he does, the reward will be huge, my brother. He's an old insurance executive who will offer more than Bush House would give you for any trouble you encounter in Somalia.

Koroma looks down-to-earth.

Any way, if they don't relax the law, just threaten them that you are coming to live in Liberia. They will think a new General Mosquito is emerging and will be afraid and remove the ban.

Take it easy.


Jonathan Paye-Layleh November 11, 2009 4:04:26 AM ET

MR Fofanah,
Your fight for justice is good, but let that dont affect your looks and life, it is better you have a shave look well and good then fight with your mouth, you are a good reporter and can even stand cases as a barrister, so please have a shave i am begging you. Thanks.

Dear Umaru,
i also beg that you have a just looks too populist ...i propose the news blackout you started will be very good as well as more direct action like having a day where every journalist goes to a presidential press conference with their mouths blastered...

don't distort your looks for these good for nothing have my support for more action ariented strategy..

Perhaps the saying "No one is above the law and no one is below it, nor do we ask anyone's permission to obey it, when required to do so" is not true with the judiciary.

Few points keep playing here; much as SLAJ stood for a repeal of the law that criminalizes libel, it's sickening to learn that the highest court of the land could not come out with a ruling within the time frame ordained in the constitution, which the courts profess to protect. Perhaps an explanation in respect of the court's delay may have sufficed, but even as i write, i'm yet to learn of any legal provision that otherwise requires the courts to delay ruling beyond 90 days.
The question now is, who police the judiciary?

I was taken offguard to learn that the case against the attorney general and the Minister of Information in respect of the SLAJ request for interpretation of the criminal libel law ends with almost a no case submission. Was it that the Minister of Information in particular, who is known to have led the campaign, campaigned this time against SLAJ? Again, perhaps the saying that "the canons of power and the tenents of morality are independent of each other",is true with politicians.

Umaru, say what you may, SLAJ under your leadership has sent a clear warning that the law is no respecter of persons and personalities. You have succeeded in bringing together old, experienced and young journalists for a common cause. You would marvel about the number of text messages your interview generated on UN Radio's prime programme TEA BREAK this morning on the SLAJ/Supreme Court dismissal-all were in favour of SLAJ.

Keep your head up. You may not know the number of pages you are writing in the minds of many people.

I stand down.

Indeed you haven't the best of looks at the moment, but I adore you for standing up for the common good. We cannot talk of a democracy and stifle free speech by criminalizing people for what they say or write. Well, President Koroma made a promise to win the election but not to stand by them. This law has to go! I'm happy you've taken a stand. I only hope we will all follow your led and do something about it.
Goooooooooo gooooo umar

Good article Umaru,
I see the passion in you for a repeal of that law which criminalises libel in our law books. The highest (Supreme Court) court in the land has decided. They might not repeal it now, nor in 5 years time but we will leave to fight the fight and we shall succeed.

hi mr president,your looks here is somehow deffrend, all the same , you're fighting a reail course, though it would fall on deaf, domb, and blind goverments such as in sierra leone, president koroma would have set a record in sierra leone if he would have repel, and amend certain clauses, and give the press some space to breath freely, he deed promised,but still the press free dom,is no where to be found, it's not going to be easy, but keep on fighting, i wish you all the best,

I love the new looks bro! Stay true to your word and keep it going till the decision is passed - positive or negative, as far as SLAJ, is concerned. You need to consider ways of engaging the powers that be in a non-threatening environment. Egos get involved in these scenarios and no one wants to back down, because of the wider implications.

Take radical action, but always, always, always continue to reach out directly and indirectly, to the people that have the 'real power' to do what you need doing, which is a repeal to the laws.

Umar, do you have a petition going? Post a link, if you may!


Mr. President and comrade in the struggle for press freedom, freedom of expression and media pluralism, I salute and adore you. As you are already aware, I’m no stranger to your new looks and the accompanying embarrassments. It takes a hirsute to know the pain associated with being one especially in a country like ours where political and judicial maneuvering are nothing good to write home about.

Like you, never in my adult life did I wait longer than two weeks without a shave or a haircut. But I was naturally forced by my conscience to keep my hair like yours for at least three months before shaving. And that was after SLAJ decided to suspend all protest actions following the intervention of the President of Sierra Leone and his assurances of a ruling last September.

But unlike you, I was lucky I did not face any embarrassment from immigration officials as I never had the course to travel outside the country during that period. But like you, my family members and other close associates also hated my looks.

And like you again, I was not surprised when the Supreme Court finally dismissed our case to have the criminal and seditious libel laws repealed and failed to give us hard copies of the two rulings as soon as they were separately delivered November 10, 2009 by the Chief Justice Hon.Umu Tejan-Jalloh and Supreme Court Justice Hon. Maitland Emeric Tolla-Thompsons. Of course you know that this act in itself contravenes section 120/16 of the 1991 constitution. But this is Sierra Leone!

How I wish someone could help me post my two contrasting photos here like yours. Anyway, I hope you will take heart as you have always done and not go the Jonathan Paye-Layleh way. By sitting before a Presidential motorcade in protest we will risk being shot by over-zealot close protection guards or other secrete service operatives, the death sentence from the same Supreme Court or at best life imprisonment for allegedly “attempting to either overthrow the president by the use of force or exposing him to security risk”.

But in any case, if threats could move our policy markers to repeal these draconian laws I will be delighted to join you in the threat to go to Liberia, Lybia or any other place.

Honestly my brother, I too may not have been the second after you to challenge this law, but I am also determined to be the second to last before you if I can’t be the last. The dice is cast. But remember freedom is not for the dead. So let’s live to fight another day.

Mustapha Sesay, National Secretary General, SLAJ.

Mustapha Sesay, Sec Gen, SLAJ November 13, 2009 3:52:44 PM ET

Nice Umaru keep the good work for Sierra Leone

EMMANUEL AIAH NGAUJAH November 11, 2010 1:35:58 PM ET

Social Media

View All ›