Monday, March 10, 2008

Journalists, rights groups line up against Sierra Leone's defamation laws

Two regional rights groups have decried Sierra Leonean libel and news laws and urged the country’s Supreme Court to render them unconstitutional. These complaints come in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Sierra Leone Association of Journalists to repeal the country’s Public Order Act, which provides lengthy jail terms for defamation and libel.

"These laws prevent free expression and are often abused by those in power to silence critics," Professor Kwame Karikari, Director of the Accra-based Media Foundation of West Africa, told Le Mali.

"The Supreme Court should remove this gag on the people's voice," Professor Karikar added in the communiqué received in Dakar on Saturday.

The Open Society Justice Initiative's senior legal officer in Africa, Chidi Odin kalu, also decried the laws, saying "anti-expression laws like these are antiquated remnants of the colonial period. They have no place in today's Africa."

One example of the laws’ harshness includes a journalist who was jailed for several months after publishing an account of army officers illegally profiting from illicit diamond sales.

Just over a month ago, the country’s minister of transport and aviation also used the law to prosecute the editor of the Freetown-based Independent Observer, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. The newspaper ran a story questioning how the new minister could be building two separate houses merely two months after taking office.

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