Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Between an Irresponsible Government And an Irresponsible Press

Go to any African country like Sierra Leone and ask a government official his opinion about journalists, they would describe them as 'irresponsible'.

When a journalist too is sarcastic, he too describes the government as irresponsible.

In Sierra Leone, no journalist would accept that government officials show signs of responsibility when almost all the government ministries and ministers are characterized with shortcomings. The journalist being part of the "social circle", that comprises the masses, which is distinct from the "circle of influence" that comprises the "haves", feels the pinch of the cataleptic economy and therefore expects that things should be changed overnight. Sometimes that emotion, which he cannot detach from his work, pushes him to go beyond bounds. And when that happens, the politicians brand the whole press as being "irresponsible".

In African countries, there is always this problem of sweeping generalizations. When two out of ten exhibit irresponsibility, it is taken to be the whole set. There is therefore no distinction between the general and the specific. When one journalist does something that is described as irresponsible, then it becomes a justification for the government to crack down on the others. On the other hand, when one or two ministers or public officials fall short of expectation, the journalist uses the whole set to present his story This brings to mind the current debate in Sierra Leone on the Public Order Act enacted in 1965. This obnoxious law was first introduced in Ghana by the colonial government in a bid to cripple people like Kwame Nkrumah who they feared were mobilizing support to militate events against them. It was introduced in Sierra Leone in 1965 by Sir Albert Margai the second prime minister in post independent period of the former British coastal West African country. Sir Albert was described by critics as very dictatorial. He succeeded his late brother in the Sierra Leone Peoples Party leadership and in the country's leadership in 1964. It apparently invoked strong opposition within the party and outside it. In such a predicament, he thought it fit to have a sledgehammer to bring down on the tormenting flies. He influenced parliament to enact the Public Order Act.

The law has to do with what is described as " likely to cause disaffection among the subjects of the Head of State, or bringing the government into disrepute, or bringing the government into hatred " In legal practice, no lawyer is allowed to base his argument on presumptions or assumptions. His colleague would raise an objection and it would obviously be upheld. Law is not hinged on suppositions and presumptions but evidence of fact.

The paradox about the POA is that its enforcement is hinged on the likelihood of what has been described in it. How can someone be charged to court , incarcerated till when a verdict is given based on presumptions and assumptions?

All journalists in Sierra Leone, who have been charged under that Act, was due to the likelihood of the events mentioned in the Act, to happen.

The same applies to section 27 of the Act, which deals with criminal libel against an individual. It also hinges on likelihood. That is why any individual who wants a journalist to be incarcerated can influence his lawyer to take a criminal summon and charge the journalist under that section.

Now, the journalists are clamoring for a repeal/amendment of the Act. The powers that be say, "If we are to repeal it, which law should we replace it with?" Their fear is that there are people who may likely cause mischief like the radio journalists in Rwanda who contributed to the genocide through their incitements.

The answer to what the politicians ask is simple: The law should be amended and the word "likely" or the interpretation being hinged on likelihood should be retracted from the Act. For someone to be charged for seditious libel, the event must have taken place. In other words, instead of charging someone because there is a likelihood for what he has written to cause "disaffection among the subjects of the Head of State or bring the government into disrepute or hatred .", it must be something that actually causes disaffection among the people or causes the people to demonstrate violently and in extreme cases rebel because of the hatred they bear for it based on what they have read or listen to the radio. When it happens in actuality that is a ground for arresting someone, a political leader/ organization leader or journalist. The same applies in criminal libel; if as a result of what someone has written, a person is attacked, then that can be a justification for the criminal libel to be invoked. But how can a responsible government or judiciary always hinge their argument on the likelihood of something to happen when it is a supposition and in the courts no practitioner is allowed to base his argument on assumptions or presumptions?

This is the short cut solution to the POA phenomenon.

If not, the current argument will be a parallel one. Both sides; the irresponsible press and the irresponsible government would not find a point for protraction. So, where lies the future of Liberty, Freedom and Justice?

Link to allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Between an Irresponsible Government And an Irresponsible Press (Page 1 of 1)