Within hours of publishing a column describing President Ernest Bai Koroma’s behaviour to that of a rat, the two top editors of the Independent Observer in Sierra Leone were behind bars, accused of libel and sedition.

Despite printing an apology to the president on Nov. 11, publisher Jonathan Leigh and chief editor Bai Bai Sesay are far from out of the doghouse. The men spent 19 days in jail following their arrest on Oct. 18 on charges that the opinion – which outlines apparent frictions between Koroma and his deputy, Samuel Sam-Sumana – defamed the president. They face a Nov. 29 court date to answer to the charges and could face prison sentences of six months to three years if convicted.

“It’s a human rights violation,” Sesay said of the use of seditious libel charges against him and his publisher. He added that the charges brought by the Criminal Investigation Department on behalf of President Koroma were ironic because Koroma has vowed to abolish statutory penalties for libel and slander.

Sesay says he and Leigh face a baffling 26 criminal counts under the Public Order Act of 1965 for publishing a column critical of the president and using a zoological turn of phrase in describing his leadership: “As the political father of the nation [Koroma] is regarded as an elephant but he behaves like a rat and should be treated as one.”

Sadly, the Sierra Leone journalists are far from alone in Africa, where criminal defamation laws – themselves a legacy of European colonialism – give powerful people the legal means to scare or silence journalists.

In neighbouring Liberia, newspaper editor Rodney Sieh was freed on Nov. 8, more than two months after he was imprisoned for refusing to pay US $1.5 million in damages to a former government minister who filed a libel complaint in 2010 over Sieh’s news reports about alleged misuse of government funds. The staggering penalty for one of the world’s poorest countries sparked an international outcry and appeals from IPI and other groups for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to release the newsman. Meanwhile, in Angola, journalist Rafael Marques de Morais faces 11 counts of criminal libel for his investigative reports on the country’s mining industry and its links to top military officers.

Criminal defamation laws are a global scourge, yet there has been some momentum towards abolishing them. This is in part due to the recognition by more-enlightened leaders that such laws give the powerful the means to use the courts to carry out personal grudges against critics, in part in recognition that police investigators and prosecutors have far more-pressing matters to pursue.

Jamaica became the latest country to repeal criminal defamation and other Caribbean countries are under pressure to follow suit. As my colleague Scott Griffen noted last week: “IPI and its regional partner, the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), are currently leading a campaign to abolish defamation as a criminal offence in the Caribbean.” In Africa, Ghana repealed criminal defamation in 2001, and the leaders of Niger and Liberia have both signed the Table Mountain Declaration that calls for the repeal of criminal defamation.

Sierra Leone’s President Koroma still has time to accept the Independent Observer’s apology for its animal reference and drop his criminal complaint against the newspapers’ editors before they are to appear in the High Court. That would be a very human thing to do.

Timothy Spence is IPIs senior press freedom advisor for the Middle East and Africa. E-mail: tspence[at]freemedia.at