Sierra Leone media can't agree on proposed law

A proposed law has sharply divided the Sierra Leonean media.

The Independent Media Commission (IMC), which regulates the media, has revised a list of offences in the new code, which toughens fines in a bid to deter journalists from practising irresponsibly.

Under the new code, media houses can be fined up to $3,000 (Le20 million) for what IMC says is the most rampant offence – character assassination.

Already struggling

Critics say the proposed fines were aimed at killing the media, which was already struggling under disempowering poverty.

IMC says the current fines were too low and journalists did not feel obliged to respect the rules.

The proposed document is a revised version of the 2011 code. IMC officials say they want to legislate the document to make it effective.

IMC has therefore a Bill to the Ministry of Information for onward transmission to the Attorney-General for legal guidance and subsequent presentation to parliament.

Pornographic materials

Other offences catered for in it include privacy, accuracy and credibility.

The Bill also entails provisions to deal with publication or airing of indecent and pornographic materials, as well as threats, abuse and copy rights issues.

IMC also says the new code was part of its effort to strengthen an institution described as a ‘toothless bulldog’ by politicians, while journalists say it was serving the interest of the politicians to stifle free speech.

“We have a few people destroying the media and we can’t sit down and watch them do so,” argues Mr Francis Sowa, an IMC commissioner and also chairman of the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG).

To reform

MRCG is a UNDP-funded initiative which seeks to reform the Sierra Leone media.

Mr Sowa said the code was supposed to be a deterrent yet the current one had not been doing that because the fines were low.

“We think we should have solid media laws to promote democracy in Sierra Leone,” he said in a radio interview on Wednesday.

Escape route

The umbrella Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) supports the move.

SLAJ hopes the new regulations will serve as an escape route from the criminal libel law, another law they say threatens independent journalism the most.

The criminal libel law imposes jail terms of up to three years on journalists.

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