By Joe Lihundi, Tranquility News reporter, Arusha
Of all liberties present mid in 1600s, John Milton, who is considered the most significant author after William Shakespeare, asks for knowing, uttering and arguing.
Four centuries after the English poet, pamphleteer and historian’s demands, the basic rights to information and free expression are almost still inexistent in Africa, and authorities are busy enacting draconian laws to ensure they never surface.
States are custodians of information for the public to access and air their opinions either directly or through the media, yet African journalists attempting to implement these rights find themselves harassed, arrested, intimidated and fleeing their countries, if not murdered.
Latest statistics by the Committee to Protect Journalists — an independent non-profit organisation for defending rights of journalists to report news without fear of reprisal — shows at least 262 journalists were jailed in African countries last year alone.
It is in this backdrop that Unesco has just embarked on a project, which, if effectively realised, will see African journalists get a new lease of life, particularly in courtrooms.
The UN organisation is carrying out the first five-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in collaboration with the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
The course aims at providing African judges, judicial officers, prosecutors, parliamentarians and lawyers with the opportunity for increasing their knowledge on issues related to freedom of expression, press and safety of journalists.
The Vice President of the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights (AfCHPR), Justice Ben Kioko, says the online course elaborates on the international and regional legal frameworks of freedom of expression and related issues.
“The training also expands on challenges to freedom of expression in the digital age, especially in the African context,” says Justice Kioko.
The course, which relies upon case studies to ensure in-depth and multi-faceted understanding of the content, is also open to journalists, civil society, bloggers, human rights advocates, academics and others interested in the topic and is offered free of charge.
Justice Kioko and Commissioner Pansy Tlakula, the former Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and AfCHPR Chairperson give video lecturers in the course.
Other trainers are UNESCO Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information, Mr Frank La Rue, and the Director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, Prof Frans Viljoen.
Denmark, Open Society Foundations and Norway are supporting the training implemented in the framework of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and Issues of Impunity.
Free information, expression and press
Roles of information and free expression and dissemination in the building of democracy, good governance, transparency and accountability in any society cannot be overemphasized.
Members of the society enjoy their economic, social, and other basic rights with them.
The African charter and Windhoek Declaration to which 17 out of 54 countries on the continent are party to date provide a framework for freedom of information, expression and press.
While the charter grants the right to receive information and to express and disseminate opinions, the declaration promotes independent and pluralistic media — an essential ingredient for a participatory democracy.
Nonetheless, given the worldwide tradition among governments to operate secretly, enforcement of the regional legislations is wanting even in countries they have been ratified.
The training also expands on challenges to freedom of expression in the digital age, especially in the African context,” – Justice Ben Kioko.
The online training uses various examples of landmark decisions which regional and sub-regional courts in Africa have previously delivered, including various judgments on defamation by the AfCHPR and the ECOWAS Court of Justice.
Issues the AfCHPR addressed in a defamation case involving Bukina Faso journalist Lohé Issa Konaté in 2014 feature in the online training which kicked off mid this month.
Konaté was charged with accusing a state prosecutor of corruption in his report. In response, the prosecutor filed a complaint against the journalist and a co-defendant for defamation, public insult, and contempt of court. Criminal charges against both defendants were also filed and damages sought.
In October 2012, the Ouagadougou High Court found Mr Konaté guilty and sentenced him to one-year imprisonment, a fine of $3000 and $9,000 worth damages was to be paid to the prosecutor.
However, the AfCHPR found the conviction was a disproportionate interference with the applicant’s guaranteed rights to freedom of expression.
The court notes in its judgment that public figures such as prosecutors must tolerate more criticism than private individuals.
The regional court orders Burkina Faso to amend its legislation on defamation to make it compliant with international standards.
MORE INFORMATION: AFRICAN COURT
African countries established the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) to protect human and peoples’ rights on the continent. It complements and reinforces the functions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It may receive cases filed by the AfCHPR, state parties to the Protocol to African Charter on Human and People’s Rights adopted in Ouagadougou, Bukina Faso, in June 1998, or African intergovernmental organisations. Non-governmental organisations with observer status before the African Commission and individuals can also institute cases directly before the court provided the state against which they are complaining has legally recognised the jurisdiction of the court. Only eight out of 30 states parties to the protocol had made the declaration recognising the competence of the court to receive cases from NGOs and individuals by July this year. The court delivered its first judgment in 2009. As on August 30, 2017, the court had received 147 applications and finalised 32 cases. ends