President Julius Maada Bio has signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom as a commitment by the government to improving media freedom domestically and working together internationally with the Media Freedom Coalition.
“My government is pleased to have signed up as a member of the Media Freedom Coalition. We are also pleased to be the 5th country in Africa to commit to the principles and values of the Media Freedom Coalition.
“To me, therefore, a free, unfettered, and professional press is not incidental to democratic governance. It is a critical bulwark for good governance and democratic participation. More public scrutiny, not less, is good for greater transparency and accountability in governance.
“Last year, I signed a repeal of Part V of the Public Order Act of 1965 — Criminal and Seditious Libel Law — that had criminalised the practice of any journalism perceived as unfavourable to successive governments,” he said.
He said he had always argued that the repeal would unshackle free speech, expand democratic spaces, and consolidate the country’s democracy, adding that it would further enhance professionalism and particularly support greater inclusion of women in the practice of journalism.
The President also recalled that before the elections of 2018, then as a candidate for the Sierra Leone People’s Party, SLPP, he promised in his manifesto that as President he would work to expunge that law.
He noted that successive governments had not only refused to abolish that law, but they had used it actively to intimidate and imprison media practitioners, silence dissenting views, and threaten civil liberties.
“To my mind, enforcing criminal and seditious libel laws contravenes our constitution’s guarantee of free speech and all international treaties and conventions on free speech. At the time, it also ran counter to recommendations by our country’s Human Rights Commission, the Constitutional Review Committee, and recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation report of 2003. Development partners, rights and civil society groups had also consistently denounced it. Everyone could not be wrong on the criminal and seditious libel law,” he said.
He, therefore, expressed appreciation for the invitation to participate in the formal ceremony to sign the Global Pledge on Media Freedom on behalf of Sierra Leone, adding that promoting and protecting free speech and media freedom were dear to his heart and central to his perception of good governance and participatory democracy.
“We are encouraged that we are recognised among the top five countries in Africa for facilitating and supporting freedom of expression. We are committed to doing even more.
“A year on from signing the repeal, 130 registered newspapers, 165 registered radio stations, and 42 registered television stations continue to operate freely. There is no journalist in prison for the practice of journalism,” he assured.
President said the New Direction government had introduced progressive policies to support more pay and better working conditions for journalists, adding that they were also working closely with the leadership of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, the Human Rights Council of Sierra Leone, Development Partners, and civil society to ensure more improvement.
“In a related legislation, the IMC Act of 2020, we have sought to support training and professionalism, reduce yellow journalism, regularise wages, and revise the media code of ethics,” he concluded.