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Sierra Leone: Supreme Court Rules Libel Law Does Not Violate Freedom of Press

(Dec. 15, 2009) It was reported on December 7, 2009, that the Sierra Leone Supreme Court had rejected a constitutional challenge to the 1965 Public Order Act, which imposes criminal responsibility for “defamatory” publication. (Mohamed Fofanah, Mixed Reactions to Libel Law Ruling, INTERPRESS SERVICE NEWS AGENCY, Dec. 7, 2009, available at

The Act provides that a person who publishes defamatory material is guilty of libel and, on conviction, is punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment not exceeding two years. (The Public Order Act, No. 46, §27, LEGISLATION OF SIERRA LEONE (1965) (official source). The Act does not allow truth as a defense unless a defendant can prove that the publication was a matter of public interest, in which case the public prosecutor may at his/her discretion allow truth as a defense. (Id. §28.)

The decision of the Supreme Court that the Act did not contradict the freedom of expression provision in the Sierra Leone Constitution was met with mixed reactions. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), the institution behind the court challenge, which sought to end the criminal responsibility aspect of the Act and establish truth as a defense against suits based on the Act, was disappointed by the ruling. Mustapha Sesay, SLAJ's Secretary General, expressed his institution's frustration as follows:

[i]t is the toughest legal setback for the struggle for Pess freedom, media pluralism and freedom of expression in Sierra Leone. This has far-reaching implications for professional media practice and democratic governance in the country. (Fofanah, supra.)

Not all journalists, however, see the ruling as a setback. A journalist who has been imprisoned for publishing a caricature of the head of state agrees with the court ruling. According to this journalist, the Act is not a threat to freedom of expression; it is the abuse of executive power that is at the center of the problem, and that cannot be cured, in her view, by scrapping the Act. In fact, she argues, the Act is useful in keeping overzealous journalists in control. Elean Shaw, a human rights activist, shares this view. (Id.)

SLAJ plans to work with the Sierra Leone Parliament and eventually obtain enough support to have the Public Order Act repealed. (Id.)