ACHPR Special Rapporteur Convenes Expert Meeting on Revision of Freedom of Expression Principles

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Commissioner Soyata Maiga, Chairperson, ACHPR
Commissioner Soyata Maiga, Chairperson, ACHPR

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Commissioner Lawrence Mute, will convene an Experts and Stakeholders Meeting on the Revision of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa on April 22, 2018 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, ahead of the 62nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Experts and Stakeholders Meeting is being convened by the Special Rapporteur in collaboration with the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Accra, Ghana; the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in Nairobi, Kenya; and Media Rights Agenda (MRA) in Lagos, Nigeria, with support from Global Partners Digital (GPD) in London.

The meeting will bring together high-level freedom of expression and access to information advocates on the African continent as well as other stakeholders to outline a concrete proposal on the process and strategies for undertaking the revision of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The Declaration was originally adopted nearly 16 years ago, at the 32nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission held in Banjul, The Gambia, in October 2002. By the Declaration, the Commission sought to elaborate and clarify the scope as well as the limits of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Declaration reaffirmed “the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and information as an individual human right, as a cornerstone of democracy and as a means of ensuring respect for all human rights and freedoms”.

However, 10 years after the Declaration was adopted, the Commission, in May 2012, adopted Resolution 222 by which it decided to modify the Declaration and authorized the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa to initiate a process to expand Article IV of the Declaration to elaborate on the aspect relating to access to information.

In June 2016, the Commission, taking into account the developments in areas of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa since the adoption of the Declaration, adopted Resolution 350, by which it decided to revise the entire Declaration through the Special Rapporteur.

In the resolution, the Commission urged “State Parties, civil society and other stakeholders, to collaborate with the Special Rapporteur by contributing to the process of revising the Declaration.”

The Commission subsequently adopted Resolution 362, at its 59th Ordinary Session held in November 2016 in Banjul, in which it noted the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution HRC/RES/20/8 of 2012, which recognized “the global and open nature of the Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms” and affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.” The UN Human Rights Council also called upon all States “to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries.”

The Commission expressed in the Resolution 362 its awareness of the need to bridge the digital divide which has significantly disadvantaged the African continent and also recognized the importance of the Internet in advancing human and peoples’ rights in Africa, particularly the right to freedom of information and expression.

It noted that that privacy online is important for the realization of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference, as well as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The Commission also expressed its concern about “the emerging practice of State Parties of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections”, adding that “it is of critical importance that clear and comprehensive principles are established to guide the promotion and protection of human rights in the online environment.”

It therefore called on “States Parties to respect and take legislative and other measures to guarantee, respect and protect citizens’ right to freedom of information and expression through access to Internet services” and encouraged the Special Rapporteur “to take note of developments in the Internet age during the revision of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.”

The Commission also urged “State Parties, civil society and other stakeholders to collaborate with the Special Rapporteur by contributing to the process of revising the Declaration to consider Internet rights.”

Upon his appointment as the new Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa at the 61st Ordinary Session of the Commission held in Banjul from November 1 to 15, 2017, Commissioner Mute has included the revision and expansion of the Declaration among his priorities, noting that the main objective of the Declaration was to elaborate on the scope and content of Article 9 of the African Charter; and that over time, major pertinent issues have emerged which are either not covered at all or are covered insufficiently in the Declaration.

In deciding to convene the Experts Meeting, the Special Rapporteur said he plans to offer a direction on how to address and consolidate new developments that are absent from the Declaration and would “develop an options concept for revising or updating the Declaration”.
According to him, the options concept may take account of the development of further relevant norms; the form any such further norms should take, including whether it is strategic to revise the Declaration or develop new further specific instruments such as general comments, declarations, principles, guidelines or resolutions.

Following initial consultations, the Special Rapporteur has agreed to collaborate with MFWA, KICTANet and MRA, to convene an Experts and Stakeholders Meeting in Nouakchott, to begin discussions on the planned revision of the Declaration.

The meeting will bring together high-level freedom of expression and access to information advocates on the African continent as well as other experts and stakeholders in Africa working on issues related to or relevant for Article 9 of the African Charter.

The meeting will, among other things, discuss various options for implementing resolutions 350 and 362 of the African Commission; advise on the approach and process for undertaking the revision of the Declaration; identify the sections or issues in the Declaration that need to be revised or expanded and determine how best the arising tasks may be undertaken; develop a road map and timelines for achieving the identified tasks; identify persons and organizations to lead the implementation of the identified tasks; and discuss options for funding the proposed tasks.

A key outcome of the meeting is expected to be a concrete proposal setting out the process and strategies for undertaking the revision of the Declaration.