On 18 and 19 October 2019, the Democracy, Transparency and Digital Rights (DTDR) Unit at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, participated in the regional consultation meeting for Francophone West Africa and North Africa on freedom of expression and access to information. The meeting was organised by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute. The consultation was aimed at discussing strategies for ensuring effective realisation of access to information; exploring how access to information may be used to support a free and fair electoral environment; and strategising on ways of ensuring freedom of expression.
The meeting took place alongside the NGO Forum of the 65th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and was attended by representatives from Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Tunisia and The Gambia. The ultimate goal of the meeting was to raise awareness on the right to access to information and freedom of expression; and also, to introduce to the two regions and discuss the draft revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa so that both regions contribute to its finalisation. The discussions were facilitated by Hlengiwe Dube from the Centre, Maxwell Kadiri from the Open Justice Initiative and Fatou Senghore from Article 19 (West Africa).
Commissioner Mute reiterated that while some jurisdictions have legislation that guarantees freedom of expression and access to information, it is not the case in many other countries where journalists and media practitioners work in dangerous environments and face numerous challenges. He also outlined the process of the revision of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.
Maxwell Kadiri facilitated the access to information session in which he outlined the standards that have been developed the African Commission such as the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa and the Declaration for Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa. He also referenced other instruments that provide for the right of access to information such as the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance, the African Union Convention on Combating and Preventing Corruption and the Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service and Administration. Mr Kadiri explained the principles in the context of access to information such as maximum and proactive disclosure. Mr Kadiri also outlined the various experiences in the two regions that were under consideration.
Hlengiwe Dube led the discussion on access to information and elections and specifically introduced the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa that the Commission adopted in 2017. In her presentation, she outlined the essence of the right of access to information in the context of elections emphasising the enabling role that it plays in empowering the electorate to be well-informed about political processes with due regard to their best interests and to enable them to participate in decision-making processes and to hold public officials accountable. She also provided highlights of the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa. Also, she presented on the significance of the Guidelines particularly in guiding stakeholders on the specific categories of election-related information that must be proactively disclosed to the public and also in developing systems and processes for mainstreaming access to information into the entire electoral process.
Fatou Senghore facilitated the session on freedom of expression. She highlighted the trends in the area of freedom of expression from the international level and also highlighting how different states have implemented the relevant international standards. She highlighted some of the milestones and challenges in North Africa and Francophone West Africa on freedom of expression and outlined the draft revised Declaration, juxtaposing it with the 2002 Declaration.
The meeting was interactive and participatory and delegates shared experiences on access to information and freedom expression from their countries. Out of the discussions, it came out that Tunisia has more progressive protection of these freedoms particularly in the context of access to information. The 2016 Tunisian access to information law is perceived to be closely aligned to the Model Law and can be seen as more progressive in some cases. Countries such as Togo, Gabon, and Niger suffer strikingly similar challenges. Delegates also commented on the draft Declaration. There was also a discussion on the ongoing law reform that is currently taking place in The Gambia, which includes legislation on access to information.
Following this consultation, it was agreed that there is need to continuously raise awareness and promote the right of access to information and freedom of expression and popularise the standards that have been developed by the African Commission. Where necessary the Special Rapporteur can conduct advocacy missions. This consultation is part of the Centre’s support to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in the protection and promotion of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.
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