In Sierra Leone, laws are sometimes drafted to target individuals and some sections of the people particularly by those who are in power at the time when the laws are being created.
It is against this background that the 1965 Public Order Act was developed and passed into law by the SLPP Government under the Premier of Albert Margai who among other things was a dictator.
The law was passed to put a break on the blossoming popularity of the All People Congress (APC) and radical media houses and pen pushers in the country.
Despite the fact that Albert Margai passed such laws to stop the APC from coming to power, the law was unable to give him that, as he was eventually removed from power, the rest they say its history.
Since this law came into being all governments including military regimes have claimed that this law is a bad law and that it doesn’t have any place in our law books.
The law was so bad that it did not consider one of the sacred elements of journalism-truth as a defense.
Many journalists have suffered under this law unjustly and their only crime was to say the truth. For example, Paul Kamara, former editor of For Di People Newspaper was jailed for pointing out that a judge was not supposed to take any other job for which he received emoluments or any other allowance while he continues as a judge pursuant to Section 138 sub section 4 of the 1991 constitution.
Recently, a journalist by the name of Salieu Tejan Jalloh of Times SL was arrested by the CID for merely calling the Chief Minister in the current government, David Francis to cross-checked allegations of $1.5M and many more.
These are just few examples showing how unjust Part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act was.
Over the years, this law has even hindered the progress of one of the niches of journalism-investigative journalism as potential investigative journalists would not want to be jailed for unearthing the truth about issues.
It also hindered the progress of journalism in the country as most people who wanted to invest found it difficult and media development was somehow stifled.
Journalism in British West Africa started in Sierra Leone but because of this law other countries like Ghana and Nigeria moved ahead while the media in Sierra Leone was stagnated.
Between 2014 and 2015, we came close to repealing the 1965 Public Order but as Hon IB Kargbo said at the pre-legislative meeting many in government then were unwilling to do so.
I could recall how former Minister of Information who was a journalist, Mohamed Bangura and former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara (JFK) were very genuinely eager for Part 5 of the Public Order Act to have been repealed but the political will was never there especially from the Presidency.
In fact, when JFK and Bangura were persuading their colleagues, former President Koroma told the media that the honeymoon was over, a statement which opened the floodgate of media crackdown by no lesser a person than the then President of Sierra Leone.
We didn’t expect that Bio will keep to his manifesto promise of expunging Part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act especially when Parliament decided to withdraw the bill when it was initially laid. Since postwar Sierra Leone almost all manifestos of ruling parties have made pledges to decriminalize libel but they have been stillborn promises.
Julius Maada Bio has proven that he is a democrat and that he believes that free media is the bulwark of any true democracy. Bio came to power with many people doubting his democratic credential because of the excesses of NPRC Junta of which he was a part and eventually became Head of State but with the current legal reforms that he has been doing, it is but fair to say that his democratic credential is beefing up!
I just hope that now that we have decriminalized libel, we will begin to look at the Justice Cowan constitutional review document and see need to accept some of the progressive recommendations in the document as well as coming up with legislations that will enhance female representation in governance.
It will be a remiss, if I failed to acknowledge the efforts of fighters like BBC Correspondent and former President of SLAJ, Umaru Fofana who in his presidency was vociferous about this law and as such enlisted public support for it removal; Former President of SLAJ Kelvin Lewis for his role, Lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai whose work with the media over the years on decriminalizing libel is laudable, Members of the Current Parliament and the Minister of information and Communication, Mohamed Rado Swaray and his Deputy Mamadi Gobeh Kamara.