As the world commemorates World Press Freedom Day, it is sad to note that Africa is yet to fully enjoy press freedom as several developments curtail the enjoyment of press freedom provided under article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Charter). The continued presence of defamation, secrecy, insult laws and the overly stringent regulation of the internet which impede freedom of speech are causes for concern.
The Centre for Human Rights notes with concern the arrest and torture of a Mozambican journalist, Amade Abubacar, on charges of “violation of state secrecy by computer means” and “public instigation of a cyber-crime”. Amande had been documenting human violations in the country, particularly in the Cabo Delgado area. His arrest and torture infringes on his right to freedom of expression and curtails his journalist practice. The crackdown on the private media in Liberia using the country’s civil defamation laws is another violation to press freedom despite the country’s repeal of its criminal defamation laws in February 2019. A civil defamation lawsuit was filed against a Liberian owned private radio station, Roots FM. Other arrests of journalists include Kpedjo of Benin’s arrest on charges of spreading falsehoods about the country’s economy on social media. During the Comoros elections in March 2019, journalists, Abdallah Abdou Hassane and Oubeidillah Mchangama and Toufé Maecha, editor-in-chief of the privately owned daily Masiwa Komor, were arrested and detained. State authorities also seized the printed publications of three media outlets. Similar developments took place in Somalia, Burundi, Nigeria, Egypt and Tanzania. This criminalization of reporting, arbitrary arrest and torture of journalists and other media practitioners, violate the African Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights instruments that expressly provide for press freedom.
In addition, there has been a disturbing spate of state-sponsored internet shutdowns in Africa. These shutdowns occur often during major protests and elections. Some of the countries that have experienced these shutdowns in 2019 are; Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, Chad, Gabon and more recently, Benin. By shutting down the internet, governments deny their citizens an atmosphere that fosters respect for human rights and specifically, access to information, freedom of expression and right to freedom of association and assembly which are fundamental elements of any functional democracy. The internet enables the enjoyment of these rights as provided for in the African Charter. The Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that access to information “empowers the electorate to be well-informed about political processes with due regard to their best interest: to elect political office holders … and hold public officials accountable for their acts or omissions in the execution of their duties.”
The Centre for Human Rights echoes the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ position in the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa, that “for elections to be free, fair and credible, the electorate must have access to information at all stages of the electoral process.“ It is not permissible to shut down the internet, as such a measure, according to the UN Human Rights Council, “intentionally prevents or disrupts access to or dissemination of information online and it is in violation of international human rights law.” Internet shutdowns are not justifiable in an open and democratic society. The Centre for Human Rights, therefore, urges African states to desist from ordering internet shutdowns, and call on international organisations to join this call to mount pressure on states to respect human rights of their citizens which are better facilitated by their access to the internet and other networked communications.
On the occasion of the commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day, the Centre for Human Rights commends the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to information in Africa for undertaking the initiative to revise the 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa (the Declaration). A draft has been developed and is available in English, French and Portuguese and the Special Rapporteur is calling on stakeholders to provide feedback to the draft. The consultative process ends on 1 July 2019. The revision of the Declaration is a landmark development that will contribute to an enhanced normative standard of freedom of expression, access to information and digital rights in Africa.
The Centre for Human Rights also commends the progressive ruling by the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) that declared that Tanzania's Media Services Act infringed on press freedom and freedom of expression and called on the government to repeal the controversial legislation. The Centre for Human Rights also applauds Ethiopia for the media freedom currently being enjoyed in the country after a long spate of media repression characterized by blocking of websites, arrests of journalists, banning of media outlets and terrorism accusations. The Centre urges the country to strengthen the democratic and media reforms currently being enjoyed.
Freedom of expression and access to information are critical enablers of other rights and the Centre for Human Rights continues to partner with the Special Rapporteur and other stakeholders in ensuring that these rights are upheld and calls on States Parties to the African Charter to adopt legislative and other measures tin order to create an environment that enables journalists and other media practitioners to carry out their mandate without fear of reprisal, intimidation, harassment and censorship. It is imperative that all States contemplating the restriction of free expression comply not only with national laws, but also align their actions with international human rights standards. The onus rests on the states to show that it has complied with the limitations allowed under international human rights law in placing a restriction to freedom of expression including internet access on their citizens.
For more information, please contact:
Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit
Tel: +27 (0) 12 420 4199
Fax: +27 (0) 86 580 5743
Project Officer: Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit
Tel: +27 (0) 12 420 3810
Fax: +27 (0) 86 580 5743