The Paradox of Free Speech and the Libel Criminal Law
The Sierra Leone Criminal Libel Law was introduced by Sir Albert Margai of the SLPP in 1965. Undoubtedly, it became one of the most draconian sledgehammers used to muzzle and “zip up “opposition parties and “dissenting” media voices. The APC party vociferously opposed the law then, but the late Siaka Stevens perfected the dark art on assuming power in 1968. It became his sharpest tool of choice, in the arsenal of his One -Party rule. Despite numerous promises to repeal this law in election manifestoes, successive governments continued to wield this sword of Damocles as antidote to democracy.
The fact that it took 55 years and an SLPP President Bio to repeal this anti-democratic law is not only ironic but self-owned. Freedom of speech is the palm oil with which democracy is eaten and repealing the criminal libel law was a milestone in our history. President Bio deserves all the plaudits he can get. But does the recent spate of arrests, questionings and detentions put his legacy at risk? isn’t it ironic that President Bio, who championed the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law is presiding over a period that has seen political opponents frogmarched to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), for voicing their objections to some of his policies? Does this this give credence to the notion that “freedom of speech” is no guarantee for “freedom after speech”?
Media reports stated that Ms Diana F Konomanyi, the Eastern Regional Chairman of the APC and Ms Femi C. Cole, chairman of the Unity Party were arrested and detained (the Sierraleonetelegraph.com-13/12/21). While Dr Dennis Bright of NGC was a guest at the Police HQ on 7/12/21 for speaking out against the controversial mid term census, Ms Konomanyi was roped in for an alleged video she released; calling on her Kono kindred to boycott the controversial midterm census. Ms Cole endured a similar fate for similar claims, while chaperoning her colleague to the CID. Other political personalities are rumoured to have had similar experiences. Does it look like “freedom of speech” is under attack from supposedly, the High Priest of freedom of speech?
So, what is free speech or freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech can come in different shades, depending on individual perceptions. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Law, the United Nations recognised Freedom of Expression as a Human Right; a “principle that supports an individual or community to articulate their opinions and views without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction” (Student Companion). To others, it is the right to tell others what they don’t want to hear. By arresting or detaining Ms Diana, Ms Cole, Dr Bright and others for expressing their views, did Bio’s administration breach their human rights? If so, is President Bio giving with one hand and taking with the other?
But let’s remember that “every right has responsibilities. We measure our rights against the inherent responsibilities that come with such rights. One has the right to remain stupid, just as others the right to rebel against that stupidity. Sierra Leoneans have the right to vote, and that right comes with civic and moral responsibilities. Responsibility is the price we must pay in exchange for freedoms. Does the right to freedom of speech give anyone the right to falsely shout “FIRE” in a crowded cinema hall?
President Bio’s reign is painted in accusations, ranging from tribalism, nepotism, corruption etc predominantly by the opposition. President Bio’s SLPP supporters and sympathisers alike, accuse the opposition APC of trying to make the country “ungovernable”. APC members/supporters have at various times, allegedly encouraged their following to engage in civil disobedience; in protest to some of Bio’s policies. Members of both parties have resorted to trading insults (mammy Cuss) in musical lyrics and on the social media Stock Exchange. With neither party showing any appetite to discourage or condemn such abhorrent acts is suggestive of how low and kindergarten our politics has become. Silence can mean consent.
Like others, it is Ms Diana’s inalienable right to oppose the mid term census. But does that include asking a whole district to boycott a national exercise, irrespective of the inherent controversies? Many accuse her of vigilante politics and question why she didn’t do the same when Ernest created Kerana and Falaba Districts prior to the 2016 midterm census? The SLPP won the Presidential elections, not the parliamentary elections. And that is not lost on the SLPP. Dig it? There are reports that some enumerators were chased with machetes in some parts of the country; just for asking someone their names and dates of birth. If true, this shows the potential dangers of lacing our views, rights or whatever with rocket fuel.
It is understandable for Bio’s administration to consider Ms Diana’s behaviour as an act of sabotage. Who would you blame if there were loss of lives? Would that have been worth it? The fact is, should the APC throw the baby out of the pram, each time it faces a political gridlock from the SLPP? This is not justification for President Bio’s selective hearing impairment to opposition concerns either. But there are better ways of getting under, over and around our political differences. Using the ever suffering and gullible electorate as pawns on their political chessboard is not only callous but selfish.
This is the kind of behaviour that has left many wondering whether our political landscape needs adult supervision. We can express our political differences without the need for “mammy cuss” as the main currency. The First Lady Fatima Bio was forced to publicly express her pain at being the subject of virulent “Mammy Cuss “during the victory lap of the newly elected SLPP Women’s Leader Hawa Foray. President Bio reprimanded Fatima for washing the dirty linen in public. Perhaps she did so because Ngor Bio has not been listening to her pillow talk. By virtue of her character, her position or role, she has been controversial. But irrespective of her controversies, Fatima Bio, like anyone else does not deserve such levels abuse. She is a woman for God’s sake. Like or loathe her, you have the ballot box to make your feelings known, if you choose to.
Is President Bio at risk of destroying his well earned legacy of repealing the criminal libel law
No one is questioning the APC’s right to cast doubts or question the midterm census, for fear of political gymnastics. It takes one to know one and “cunning die……. But that shouldn’t be a carte blanche to promote, incite and support unrests in the country; all in the guise of free speech. We shouldn’t demand freedom of speech as compensation for our freedom of thought, which we seldom use. Equally, this does not give the Bio administration the right to arbitrarily arrest those who share views or opinions it doesn’t like. Such actions might put Bio’s legacy with Criminal Libel Law at risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
No one doubts the frustration, the sense of injustice, the threats and fear of persecution that comes with being in the opposition. No one questions the perceived injustices, discriminations, and unfair advantages that come with being in the opposition. But does that mean that we should continue to use the electorate, who by the way bear the brunt of the ineptitude of our politicians, as pawns of their political chessboard? There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a difficult balancing act with very thin lines between democracy and tyranny. It can be difficult to soar with eagles when you fly with crows. But it can be done…. with a common sense of purpose.
Our two main parties never cease to tell us how bad and unfit the other is at governing. Ironically, not only do they use each other as standards or yardsticks to demonstrate their differences, but also as litmus test to measure their individual fitness to govern. How do you gauge your success against a failing or failed opponent as standard? Try Singapore or Rwanda to measure your success.
In the meantime, the APC could do with officially naming their flagbearer; except if they want to risk another round of “you sabi am?”. Indecision can lose opportunities; and dreams can be destroyed during moments of indecision. Sometimes the key to success is doing what should be done, even if you don’t feel like doing it.
Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about the things that matter (MLK)
A Happy New Year to all.
Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.
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