55th Ordinary Session of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Item 8: Activity Reports of Members of the Commission & Special Mechanisms: Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa
Statement by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
Madame Chairperson, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Honourable Commissioner Faith Pansy Tlakula, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs; all protocols respectfully observed.
On behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, I would like to thank the Honourable Commissioner for her committed promotion of freedom of expression and access to information during the course of her mandate since 2005.
Across the sub-region, the past six months has seen renewed government clampdowns on freedom of expression, and the targeting through various means of journalists, media organisations, bloggers, and other human rights defenders working on the front lines of human rights protection. In many countries, regressive legislation was introduced or discussed, regulating the media, and introducing burdensome regulatory provisions and criminal and civil penalties for journalists. The introduction by many member states, of domestic legislation that fundamentally contravenes Article 9 of the African Charter has served to undermine freedom of expression across our sub-region, and to narrow the legitimate operating environment for human rights defenders.
In addition, journalists, human rights defenders, and others exercising their fundamental right to free speech in our sub-region have increasingly been subject to targeted administrative and bureaucratic obstacles by governments as a means to disrupt their work. In addition, we regret to report to the Commission that journalists and human rights defenders continue to suffer violent acts of assault, intimidation, arrest, detention, harassment and murder for exercising these rights.
In Burundi, a controversial new law regulating the media, which came into force in June 2013, was challenged in the Constitutional Court. In January 2014, the Constitutional Court invalidated provisions of the law that imposed heavy fines on journalists. However, the law continues to contain several highly concerning provisions, including restrictions on investigative journalism and requirements for journalists to reveal their sources in an overly broad range of circumstances.
In Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive and closed regimes, journalists along with many ordinary citizens languish en masse in inhumane detention facilities where torture is common. Eritrea was once again ranked last in the 2014 Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index.It has held this position for the past seven years, and at present, at least 28 journalists are believed to be detained.
The Eritrean government appears determined to maintain a complete blackout on news and information, and independent journalism is effectively non-existent in the country. The country has no privately owned media, and media based in the diaspora constitute the only source of independent news coverage of the situation of Eritrea. The independent press was effectively closed by the government in 2001, through the revocation of licenses and mass arrests of editors and publishers, several of whom are reported to have died in detention. Many others have been held in incommunicado detention throughout this time. Those detained include journalist Dawit Isaak, who was arrested on 23 September 2001, and has not been seen by anyone since 19 November 2005. Despite repeated requests, including at this very session, the Eritrean authorities have refused to share information on his safety and whereabouts.
In Ethiopia in October 2013, Melaku Desmisse, the editor of The Reporter newspaper, was arbitrarily arrested and detained, before being released the following day. No charges were brought against him, and he was reportedly not notified of the reasons for his arrest. Shortly before the opening of this session, 6 Ethiopian bloggers from the ‘Zone 9’ collective, together with three other independent journalists, and numerous opposition party members were arrested and detained in Addis Ababa, in the largest coordinated clampdown on freedom of expression in Ethiopia in several years. The arrests are part of a broader, ongoing crackdown on independent voices within, and outside, the country. A number of journalists and human rights defenders who have exposed human rights violations or discussed sensitive issues have been arrested and detained under vague provisions in the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
In Kenya in December, the Parliament adopted two new media laws: the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendments) Act and the Media Council Act. Combined, the two laws dramatically increase state control of the media by widening government oversight authority over media houses. Exorbitant fines of up to 500,000 Kenyan Shillings (approximately 5700 USD) for individual journalists, and 20 million Kenyan Shillings (roughly 230,000 USD) for media houses were introduced, for violations of a vaguely drafted Code of Conduct.
In Somalia during this period, journalists continued to face grave and direct threats to their safety, security, and lives. A draft media law has been the subject of much discussion. Encouragingly, there was open dialogue between the government and civil society actors (including those in the diaspora) on substantive elements of the proposed new laws during this period.
While media laws are needed to protect freedom of expression, the draft law in Somalia its current form is problematic. The law includes a number of vaguely drafted and highly subjective provisions, including a prohibition on journalists releasing information against Somali or Islamic tradition. Fundamentally, the draft law fails to comprehensively address the magnitude of the safety and security issues affecting journalists.
In South Sudan, prior to and since the outbreak of countrywide violence in December 2013, journalists and media owners were routinely threatened,intimidated, and harassed by government forces. Newspapereditors were frequently subjected to interference,pre-publication censorship and suspected surveillance by government security services. The current conflict has dramatically worsened this situation. In March 2014, South Sudan’s Minister of Information publicly warned journalists not to interview anti-government forces, or face possible arrest or expulsion from the country.
In Sudan, on 20th February 2014, NISS ordered three independent newspapers, Aakir Lahza, Al Ehram, Alyoum and Alwatan to stop distribution of their newspapers. No rationale was given for the order but the papers resumed distribution the following day. Earlier, on 11th, 24th and 26th January 2014, NISS also prevented Algareeda newspaper from distributing its newspapers with no apparent reason. The Editor in Chief of Algareeda was summoned to NISS offices on 26th January and ordered to suspend the distribution of the newspaper indefinitely.
Finally in Uganda, in March 2014 the Government released stringent regulations which all broadcasting media houses must comply with. All media houses must allocate prime time to promote government programmes and public relations. Exorbitant and unjustifiable registration fees for journalists have formed part of the controversial new regulations.
In light of these updates and observations, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project recommends that the Commission:
- Calls for an end to all practices, notably legal restrictions, which threaten fundamental rights contained in the Charter, including in particular the freedom of expression; and
- Condemns, in the strongest terms, the recent clampdown on freedom of expression in Ethiopia, and take decisive action to reinforce and uphold Ethiopia’s obligations under Article 9 of the African Charter.