Commissioner Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, has advocated for robust access to information laws, independent oversight mechanisms, adequate funding, and consistent reporting in order to strengthen access to information laws in Africa.
Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo made this and other recommendations when she presented a comprehensive intersession activity report during the 77th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights held in Arusha, Tanzania, from October 20 to November 9, 2023.
The report covered activities she undertook between May and October 2023 and outlined key initiatives aimed at promoting and protecting freedom of expression and access to information across the continent. Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo highlighted her dual role as a Member of the Commission and as the Special Rapporteur, providing insights into various interventions, conferences, and workshops.
She said she participated in the 76th Ordinary Private Session held virtually from July 19 to August 2, 2023, which focused on crucial matters such as communications, Concluding Observations on State Periodic Reports, the Mid-Term Review of the ACHPR 2021-2025 Strategic Plan, country and thematic Resolutions, and reports.
As Special Rapporteur, she participated in several activities which the report highlights to emphasise the importance of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.
Notable events in which she participated included the Conference on Information and Communication Rights in Africa, held in Windhoek, Namibia, from May 31 to June 2, 2023, which brought together activists, media workers, and human rights advocates to discuss the state of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa.
Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo also commended the launch of the Media Associations for Self-Regulation (MASR) in Zambia, emphasizing its alignment with the principles outlined in the Windhoek Outcome document. Additionally, she reported that she participated in the East and Southern Africa Regional Governance Forum and Democracy Day Roundtable, where discussions centered around the impact of digitalisation on democracy in Africa.
The report also detailed various interventions she made, including joint letters and press statements addressing human rights violations.
On her intervention on the commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo emphasised the role of the Model Law in promoting transparent and accountable governance. The report detailed the process leading to the Model Law’s adoption and its positive impact on access to information legislation across the continent.
Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo made several recommendations to States Parties, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), and Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs)
Specifically, she made the following recommendations:
To States Parties:
• Ensure the legal guarantee of the right of access to information, aligning with the principles outlined in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (2019) and the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa.
• Prioritize access to information laws over any other laws that prohibit or restrict the disclosure of information.
• Establish independent and impartial oversight mechanisms by law to monitor, promote, and protect the right of access to information.
• Provide adequate funding to ensure the effective functioning of oversight mechanisms.
• Ensure consistent reporting on legislative and other measures taken to implement the right of access to information in Periodic Reports submitted according to Article 62 of the African Charter.
• Respond to letters of urgent appeal issued by special mechanisms, providing clarification and information on the human rights issues raised.
To NHRIs and NGOs:
• Continue collaboration with the Commission and the special mechanism on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa to promote the Model Law and other soft documents related to Article 9 of the African Charter.
• Advocate for the adoption of national legislation on access to information in states that have not yet done so.
The 77th Ordinary Session served as a platform for Commissioner Topsy-Sonoo to underscore the importance of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa and call for concerted efforts to strengthen legal frameworks across the continent.