Interview by UNESCO with Justice Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza from Uganda
1. Justice Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza, you recently participated in a judicial training workshop and contributed to a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on freedom of expression and the safety of journalists set up by UNESCO and the Center for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, to foster a dialogue between the judiciary and media professionals. Could you present yourself briefly and elaborate on why you decided to participate in these activities?
I am a Justice of the Supreme Court of Uganda. Before I joined the judiciary of Uganda, I used to be in the academia as a professor of law. The reason behind my participation in the training was because I know that the judiciary has a role to play in ensuring freedom of expression and also balancing it with the protection of rights of people as well as prevention of the abuse of this freedom. I also realized that there is a link between freedom of expression and the right to accessing information, which is a tool for socio-economic development. I found this very interesting and wanted to understand the role of courts in protecting rights which lead to development in nation states, while also understanding how one can balance the freedom of expression within legitimate restrictions.
2. How important do you think training on freedom of expression is in ensuing wholesome training of members of the judiciary, such as yourself, on human rights?
I believe freedom of expression is a human right just like other rights and I think every judicial officer at every level needs training in human rights, and most certainly on freedom of expression, because it is critical to interpret law within a human rights perspective. When we talk about freedom of expression, it is linked to so many other rights as well as to the fundamental issue of economic development; and the judiciary in today’s global village, is not just responsible for resolving conflict or the contestation of rights, but also has a role to play in ensuring development. We must also remember that freedom of expression is important for democracy, good governance and the rule of law and that these three are really the bedrock of development. I don’t think we can even begin to speak about development without the inclusion of these concepts because that kind of development would not be sustainable.
3. Considering your scholarly work in the field of law which has frequently accounted for the role played by societal norms, what is your view on the specific threats faced by women journalists and how they affect freedom of expression?
When we talk about the need to protect journalists, both men and women must be protected. But there is no doubt that women journalists are more vulnerable to certain kinds of violations of rights which perhaps men are not as vulnerable to. It is important to recognize that, when discussing the protection of rights, the groups we talk about are not homogenous. This is the reason why we must talk about violence against women specifically when discussing violence against journalists. This is not to say that violence against men is correct but certainly the challenges and kind of vulnerabilities that women are exposed to, is different from that which men are exposed to. You really have to think very carefully and establish what challenges are faced by women journalists that are not faced by men. In other words actors interested in protecting the human rights of journalists must put on a gender lense and mainstream gender into their work.
4. How do you think a judicial training such as the training seminar organized for judges and the MOOC has helped reinforce African legal standards with respect to freedom of expression and other human rights?
While I cannot definitively say that whatever is happening is linked to the training as I have been to just one training, I do think that when many of our judicial officers are trained in any specific area of human rights, it will certainly affect the way they look at issues that face them in court. Because when I recall the judicial training we went through in Pretoria, we were exposed to how freedom of expression as a particular right is dealt with, inside the African human rights system. I personally realized how one could handle African media and freedom of expression issues within the African human rights system itself. I do hope that after some time, we will see the results because while it is difficult to assert that there has been a change, one can only know if there has been a change if those who have been trained actually get cases that deal with the issue. It is important to remember that judicial officers do not go and look for a case, we are under the common law jurisdiction where the cases are brought to judges. I think the focus should be to train judicial officers who can also train others.
5. What do you think the future holds for freedom of expression and safety of journalists in the African legal framework?
I think the African human rights regime has taken up this issue, which is illustrated in the way the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has expounded on the right to access to information as a tool for socio-economic development. This will have a trickle-down effect as we are dealing with the issues at the regional level. However, it is also important to deal with these issues at the national level through institutions that we all ascribe to, such as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, because that jurisprudence cannot be questioned by Member States. I also think that, the fact that social media today has thrived, really helps spreading the information on violations out there.
6. How do you suppose continued efforts in the sphere of judicial trainings and MOOCs for members of the judiciary, will affect the African human rights framework especially concerning freedom of expression issues, in the future?
The more judges you train, the more the chances are that when the rights of journalists are violated, somebody who is in charge of the specific case will do the right thing as a judicial agent. Because, as I said, previously judicial officers in the African legal framework do not go looking for specific cases, so if you have only a few judicial officers in the region who have been trained to handle cases where the journalist’s rights have been violated, it may happen that these particular officers do not hear of the case and the cases are put before judges who are yet to be trained. This is the reason why I say that as long as we train more and the trained ones train others, we can be surer that the rights of journalists will be protected at the court level, as long as judges across the board know what to do.
The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on freedom of expression, access to information and safety of journalists in Africa was rolled out by UNESCO and the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria. This project was implemented in the framework of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers. It followed the seminar commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists 2016, which took place in Arusha, Tanzania, in partnership with the African Court and Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The project received the support of Denmark and the Open Society Foundations, with a technical contribution from Norway.