Minister Ibrahim Kemoh Sesay is pursuing the case against Jonathan Leigh, editor of the Independent Observer, not as part of the government, but as an individual, in an effort to stop attacks on his human rights.
Sesay, in an interview with Concord Times after Thursday’s court appearance, said that the articles published by Leigh “trample on my human rights” – and he may be right.
According to Sesay, his political career is based upon his good reputation. When his reputation is tarnished, his career and his livelihood are threatened. He claims that the accusations of impropriety, and attacks on his moral standing, printed in the pages of the Independent Observer are in fact attacks on his basic human rights.
The accusations include using state funds to build a mansion, accepting all-expense paid travel and benefiting from ‘flag of convenience’ arrangements. Claims of immoral behavior, including being divorced three times, having 6 children and a pregnant girlfriend were also printed.
Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”. This right is guaranteed to everyone, including politicians.
The rule of law in Sierra Leone also protects those who have been defamed, but this law sends those convicted of defamation to prison. It is up to the courts to decide whether what Leigh printed is considered libelous. The burden of proof now falls upon Leigh’s defense team. They must prove the articles published in the Independent Observer were legitimate journalism.
This case highlights the debate that surrounds the criminal libel law, which has recently been brought before Sierra Leone’s Supreme Court by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). The criminal libel law is part of the 1965 public order law that SLAJ has been seeking to have repealed in recent years. The law punishes defamation with prison sentences.
The criminalization of libel acts as a barrier for journalists in doing their job and potentially as a tool for high ranking officials in government to wield in managing their image in the media. When attempting to investigate potential corruption in government, journalists are forced to consider whether printing such a story is ultimately worth the risk of potentially going to prison.
Journalism and human rights organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have called upon the government of Sierra Leone to repeal the law, which they see as an impediment to the freedom of free expression and freedom of the press.
The question of exactly whose human rights are being abused becomes more convoluted when the rights of the media are examined. Article 19 of the UDHR states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
The court case continued on Thursday with the defense opening with a cross-examination of the Minister. But after a few seemingly inconsequential questions, the defense requested an adjournment.
Defense attorney, Mr. Mohammed Turay, claimed the defense had “not done everything that we should have done” and was deserving of more time. “We still have certain research to conduct”, he said, despite the 9 day period between court appearances.
The request for the adjournment was initially denied by the judge who admonished the defense for not giving a good enough reason, but later relented, scheduling the trial to resume on April 8.
In reaction to the delay tactics by the defense, Minister Ibrahim Kemoh Sesay, said “They’re just buying time”. The minister reiterated his position that the attack on his reputation threatened his ability to do his job. “If his case is true, then I am not fit to be a minister. If his case is false, then he is not fit to be a journalist – and he should be put in prison”.
There is no question that the media cannot print unsubstantiated rumours as fact, and in fact does a disservice to the fledgling democracy of Sierra Leone when it does.
Jonathan Leigh’s defense team must now bear the burden of proof in order to avoid conviction under the criminal libel law. The real question becomes whether or not libel should be considered a criminal offense at all.