Africa’s judiciary engages on journalism safety issues

12 September 2016
Close to 100 participants came together in Arusha on Saturday for the seminar, “Strengthening judiciary systems and African Courts to protect the safety of journalists and end impunity”, convened by UNESCO and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The seminar kicks off a series of activities and gatherings over the next six weeks, towards the commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

Outgoing President of the Court, the Hon. Augustino S.L. Ramadhani, opened the deliberations. The judge had attended UNESCO’s equivalent event in Costa Rica in 2015, which was co-hosted by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

He noted: “Not only are we commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, but we are also celebrating the African Year of Human Rights with Special Emphasis on Women’s Rights as the African Union has declared this year to be. “

“And this is also the tenth anniversary since the African Court began its operations in November 2006,” he added.

The Judge spoke about the Court’s jurisprudence to date on freedom of expression by referring to two cases. In the matter of Lohe Issa Konate vs Burkina Faso, the Court ruled that a jail term for criminal defamation was invalid and that fines are sufficient remedies.

The second case involved the murder of editor Norbert Zongo and three companions in 1988. According to the Judge, the Court held that Burkina Faso had “failed to take appropriate measures to guarantee respect for the rights of slain journalists”, and also “did not show due diligence in seeking out, investigating, prosecuting and putting to trial the killers”.

Guy Berger, UNESCO's Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, and Sylvain Oré, President of the African Court. © UNESCO

Closing the event, the newly elected president of Court, Hon. Sylvain Oré, said that greater commitment by all actors could help both his court and national courts to bring an end to impunity for attacks on journalists.

In a separate meeting, he also expressed strong interest in follow-up to the seminar, such as in developing a training course for African judges to build their capacity to deal with freedom of expression cases in line with international standards and the Declaration of Principles for Freedom of Expression in Africa.

As discussed with him, Deputy President Hon. Ben Kioko, and Registrar Dr Robert Eno, the Court and UNESCO will now explore signing a Memorandum of Understanding covering a range of co-operations.

UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, earlier told the seminar that the Sustainable Development Goals had given new impetus to the importance of safety of journalists and press freedom as part of Goal 16, target 10 on “public access to information and fundamental freedoms.”

He encouraged courts to prioritise cases to protect press freedom and punish those who attacked journalists. The UN latest information on judicial follow-up to killings of journalists would be available from month in the form of the Director-General’s report to the council of UNESCO’s International Committee for the Development of Communication, he said.

Mehdi Benchelah, UNESCO Senior Project Officer, described the Organization’s work in developing training materials for more than 3000 Latin American judges and their aides, and he canvassed participants on what the topic priorities would be for a course designed for African participants.

A session in the seminar focused on the task of encouraging more African states to ratify and deposit the declaration which would strengthen the geographical scope of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

UNESCO earlier screened a video on the issue to 42 journalists from almost 20 African countries attending the event.

Pansy Tlakula, the Chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and also that body’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression and information, pledged to reinforce the work of the Court, including monitoring implementation of its decisions.

Hon. Mohamed Diawara, investigative judge in Guinea, told the seminar he would advocate for his country to join the Court.

Mr Abdirahman Omar Osman, Senior Media and Strategic Communications Advisor from the Federal Government of Somalia, also said during the seminar that he would advocate for his country to ratify the Protocol to join the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Programme included the Vice-President of the ECOWAS Court, Hon. Micah Wilkins Wright, as well Joan Obiero from the African Union legal department. Among the judges and justice officials also present were representatives from Madagascar, Senegal, Mauritania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria and Guinea. 

A range of civil society and legal representatives also took part, including delegates from the Pan-African Lawyers Union, Media Legal Defence Initiative, PEN, Reporters Without Borders, Centre for the Freedom of the Media, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The event was made possible through support from the Organisation Internationale de la francophonie, International Media Support, Article 19, Open Society Foundations, GIZ, and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Kingdom of Norway).