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Journalist charged with defamation under repressive law that government had pledged to amend

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders deplores the transport and aviation minister's use of a repressive law - which his government promised to amend - to prosecute Jonathan Leigh, the editor of the Freetown-based weekly "The Independent Observer".

"We condemn this use of an archaic law by a member of a government that undertook not to use it any more," the press freedom organisation said. "There are fair and appropriate methods for rendering justice in cases of libel and they clearly do not include a criminal prosecution resulting in imprisonment. The authorities need to understand that the democratic rules require that regulatory mechanisms and the right of response are used first in conflicts with the press."

The case is about a story in "The Independent Observer" claiming that Kemoh Sesay had construction started on two houses less than two months after taking office as transport and aviation minister in the new government. Vowing to "clear my name or resign," Sesay brought a libel suit against Leigh under the 1965 Public Order Act.

When Leigh failed to appear before a Freetown court on 11 January 2008 in response to a summons, two judges issued a warrant authorising the police to arrest and hold him until the start of the trial. However, the hearing was postponed until 15 February and Leigh was not arrested. But in an interview for privately-owned Democracy 98.1 FM, Sesay said he hoped that Leigh would receive a prison sentence if convicted.

Human rights groups and the Sierra Leone Journalists Association (SLAJ) have been campaigning for years for the repeal of the Public Order Act, which provides for long jail terms for defamation. After the opposition won the September 2007 presidential election, the new information minister, former SLAJ president Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, pledged to repeal or amend it.

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