BBC CUE: Journalists in Sierra Leone have called it “a watershed moment” or even Liberation Day. The country’s president, Julius Maada Bio, yesterday signed repeal of a 55-year-old media law campaigners around the world have called repressive. The Criminal and Seditious Libel Law has been in place for more than fifty years and successive governments have used it to jail journalists. Among other things, truth does not serve as a defence under the law and it allows for pre-trial detention. After the signing ceremony at State House yesterday, Umaru Fofana spoke to President Bio.
President Bio: We have to make progress in this country. We have decided to be a democratic society. You cannot have a vibrant democracy without journalism that is unfettered. For a very long time, we know what has been happening in this country. To have a healthy democracy means you have to have journalists to feel free to go about their own profession. Of course, that poses some problems but that is part of the democratic environment that we have to live in.
BBC: Did you do this because you made a campaign promise that you would, or because you want to please the international community?
President Bio: Well, you remember in 1992-1993 I was the Minister of Information and I started to realise the need for us to give the necessary space for journalists to practice freely. And between 1996 and 2018, I had time to think about what governance is all about. I used that time to think through deeply about a lot of issues that are wrong with our society. For me the 1965 Public Order Act I identified as a problem. I included it in my manifesto as a commitment, and for me once I made that commitment I was not going to go back on it.
BBC: There are members of the public who are sceptical about this whole thing, saying that it’s like unleashing journalists on society. You don’t have any reservation, any ifs and buts, that some journalists might go for the kill?
President Bio: Well we have some feel safe mechanisms built in our system, we have the IMC and the new Act [IMC Act of 2020], and we also…you have an organisation that is regulating and monitoring how you go about your profession. We should not be afraid of these things because most of the fear is actually unfounded. You do have some few bad people who would want to do otherwise, but I think there are a lot of safe mechanisms within the system to actually check these people. So, I can understand the fear of the society, the Sierra Leone people, including myself. But until we try we are not going to know what the challenges are going to be and how we can surmount those challenges. There are going to be problems but think we should as a country be strong enough to tackle those as and when they appear.
BBC: Mr. President hand-on-heart, what is your honest assessment of the Sierra Leone media. Are they responsible, are they reckless?
President Bio: Well, I cannot say…I cannot just lump the Sierra Leone media together and say they are reckless. As I’ve said, there are a few people and that is so common in any society. You have a few people who’d decide to just not be good citizens. And that’s why there are laws to protect, you know, the right of other people whose rights can be trampled upon. It’s a fair game in that the repeal also makes sure that there is a civil procedure by which you can be taken to court. And I also believe that you in SLAJ, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, are responsible people who are going to keep a keen eye on what your colleagues do because what they do is going to affect your collective lot.
BBC: Finally, what happens to anybody who is currently standing trial under this old law? Is that something you are considering to review?
President Bio: We are definitely going to review because once we have taken this out of our law books we have to make sure that we give a very active consideration to that as soon as possible.