MRA’s Director Calls on Citizens, International Community to Pressure Governments to Ensure Safety of Journalists

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Mr. Edetaen Ojo
Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr. Edetaen Ojo, has called on ordinary citizens in countries across Africa and the international community to put more pressure on governments to ensure the safety of journalists in their respective countries and stem the increasing spate of attacks against media practitioners on the continent.

Mr. Ojo, who is also the Chair of the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX), spoke on the topic: “The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity: Mechanisms in Africa”, at a United Nations Regional Workshop on Freedom of Expression, Access to Information, and the Safety of Journalists, which took place in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on April 20 and 21, 2023.

Organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC), and co-hosted with the UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe, the workshop brought together UN Resident Coordinators from across Africa, as well as human rights advisors and representatives of UN agencies, funds and programmes, to explore avenues to strengthen interagency collaboration and upscale the UN-wide understanding of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the safety of journalists and relevant issues around hate speech and disinformation.

Mr. Ojo noted that it is now almost 11 years since the adoption of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity but that in that period, journalists and entire media communities in different countries in Africa had continue to experience relentless attacks, including killings, physical and mental torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and arbitrary detention, expulsions from countries, intimidation, harassment, threats and other forms of violence.

Arguing that such attacks obviously interfere with the ability of the journalists to perform their watchdog roles, he stressed that the perpetrators of the attacks, who frequently include law enforcement, security and intelligence agents and other government officials, are almost never held accountable for their actions. 

Mr. Ojo said:  “In the light of this reality, I think it is fair to say that nearly 11 years after the adoption of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, not much progress has been made in terms of ensuring the safety of journalists and combating impunity for crimes against journalists.”

According to him, a major reason for the inability of the Plan of Action to realize its objectives is the absence of effective mechanisms for ensuring the safety of journalists.

Mr. Ojo identified the main mechanisms that are currently available as national judicial bodies where journalists or media organizations might go to challenge attacks against them and to seek redress as well as inter-government bodies, ranging from non-judicial, quasi-judicial to judicial bodies where the victims and other actors might lodge complaints.

Examples of such inter-government bodies, he said, include the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the East African Court of Justice, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of Central African States, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, among others.

Mr. Ojo, however, noted that in recent years, there have been a few examples of efforts to establish regional or national mechanisms on the safety of journalists, although there has not been a huge uptake in such efforts.

Assessing the effectiveness of the various mechanisms and their impact, he insisted that the national judicial mechanisms were clearly not effective for many different reasons.

According to Mr. Ojo, in many countries, the judicial bodies lack independence, arising from the manner of appointment of judges, their lack of security of tenure, the funding systems, poor democratic traditions, among other reasons, adding that “there have been many cases of blatant intimidation of judicial officers and other personnel and as a result of this lack of independence, where government or law enforcement, security or intelligence agencies or officials are the perpetrators of the attacks, these courts are simply unable to provide effective remedies.”

He also pointed out that in many cases, the courts are extremely inefficient owing to poor infrastructure, facilities and other resources, the caliber of the personnel, their cumbersome procedures, such that it takes many years to resolve matters brought before them, which has robbed them of public confidence to the extent that “many people simply do not see them as viable options.”

Mr. Ojo also argued that besides the issues of lack of independence and their unduly prolonged processes, using the courts can also be quite expensive and unaffordable for journalists and media organizations, pointing out that “in some countries, the cost of engaging a legal representative is enough to frighten journalists or media organizations from courts, whether for the purpose of taking cases to the courts to vindicate their rights or to defend civil or criminal cases brought against them.”

Besides, he said, “Where preventive measures are required to avert threats to the safety of journalists or to media organizations, the courts in most cases are not equipped to deal with such situations.”

On the inter-government bodies, Mr. Ojo noted that whether they are non-judicial, quasi-judicial or judicial in nature, a major challenge with them is that being, at best, regional bodies, they cannot deal with the volume of cases arising from the different countries within their jurisdictions.

He also noted the challenge of the high cost involved in using the courts, saying these are mostly in the form of travel expenses for the litigants, their legal representatives and witnesses who have to travel from their countries to the locations of the various bodies.

Mr. Ojo argued that although there appeared to be a greater degree of independence among the inter-governmental bodies, a major challenge with them was the fact that the mechanisms and their decisions are simply ignored and not enforced by governments.

He cited as an example the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which he described as a subsidiary special mechanism of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, who sometimes issues urgent appeals to African Governments regarding individual cases where journalists are under attack or facing threats, saying “but in most cases, these urgent appeals are simply ignored.”

According to him, the same disregard applies to the decisions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights itself, the ECOWAS Court, and other inter-governmental mechanisms.

Mr. Ojo observed that while there have been a few examples of efforts to establish national mechanisms on the safety of journalists, not many of such mechanisms are currently in existence. 

He explained that the idea of multi-stakeholder mechanisms on the safety of journalists was inspired by the realization that a single stakeholder group cannot tackle the many issues involved in ensuring a safe environment for journalists and that a collaborative approach by different stakeholders was required.

Recounting developments on national mechanism on the safety of journalists in Africa, Mr. Ojo recalled that in 2017, at the  Eastern African Conference on National Mechanisms for Safety of Journalists held in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 13 and 14, which was organized as part of activities to commemorate the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the Nairobi Declaration on National Mechanisms for Safety of Journalists was adopted.

According to him, in the Declaration, it was agreed that countries in eastern Africa should develop national multi-stakeholder coordination systems bringing on board the three arms of government, namely the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, as well as all other media stakeholders with a mandate to promote and defend freedom of expression, press freedom, access to information and safety of journalists.

He said it was also agreed that participating stakeholders should include Government focal persons on the safety of journalists, representatives of the security agencies, parliamentarians, the Judiciary, associations of journalists and media workers, media related trade unions, lawyers associations, civil society and human rights defenders, journalism training and research institutions, media regulatory bodies, among others.

Mr. Ojo recalled that the Eastern Africa Conference was followed immediately by a broader Conference on Safety of Journalists and Ending Impunity for Crimes Committed against Journalists in Africa, organized by UNESCO and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 15, 2017.

From this conference, he said, emerged the Addis Ababa Resolution on the Creation of AU Working Group on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity in Africa, which endorsed and adopted with a broader framing the 14 November 2017 Nairobi Declaration.

Mr. Ojo said the Addis Ababa Resolution “advanced the idea of establishing National Mechanisms for Safety of Journalists in African countries as a step towards the implementation of the relevant resolutions and declarations on safety of journalists, as well as the UN Plan of Action.”

He identified other developments, including Resolution 468 on the Safety of Journalists and Media Practitioners in Africa, which was adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on December 3, 2020, wherein the Commission called on AU Member States to “Investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of attacks against journalists and other media practitioners, ensure that victims have access to effective remedies and take specific measures to ensure the safety of female journalists and media practitioners by addressing gender-specific safety concerns”.

But Mr. Ojo stressed that the most significant instrument on the subject on the African continent was the “Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa”, which was adopted by the African Commission in November 2019 at its 65th Ordinary Session held in Banjul, The Gambia, Principle 20 of which deals with “Safety of Journalists and Other Media Practitioners” and outlines a comprehensive set of principles for ensuring the safety of journalists as part of the normative framework for the continent.

He contended that although there have been some efforts in a few countries in Africa to establish national mechanisms for ensuring the safety of journalists, there “are unfortunately, very few examples of these sorts of mechanisms, obviously because the establishment of such national mechanisms requires strong political will on the part of governments and their active participation for these mechanisms to be effective in preventing attacks against journalists or prosecuting and punishing perpetrators.”

Mr. Ojo insisted that available data in many countries show that governments, government officials and institutions are the biggest perpetrators of attacks against journalists, adding that “in such situations, governments are simply not motivated to vigorously address this issue.”

He said although it is too early to make a decisive assessment of the effectiveness and impact of these mechanisms, where they currently exist, the fact that attacks on journalists continue to rise rather than decrease indicates that they are not making a lot of impact.

Saying that there are many things that can still be done to improve on the various mechanisms that currently exist, he noted an apparent “general lack of appreciation for the importance of media freedom in many countries,  especially given that they are supposedly democratic societies.”

Mr. Ojo said:  “So in many countries, we do not have a culture of ordinary citizens defending media freedom or protesting when journalists are attacked.  We need to support and engage in sensitization activities for ordinary folks to appreciate that journalists are acting on their behalf and that attacks on journalists and other media workers is not an issue of concern only to the media community, but it is a matter of tremendous importance and interest to the society at large, including all citizens.”

On the role of the international community, he argued that “for different reasons, sometimes to be able to attract and receive international donor assistance and sometimes, just to look good internationally, many African governments respond better to international pressure than domestic.”

Mr. Ojo therefore called on the international community to do more to pressure governments to behave better.

He said: “Principle 20 (5) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa stipulates that States shall be liable for the conduct of law enforcement, security, intelligence, military and other personnel which threatens, undermines or violates the safety of journalists and other media practitioners.  These should not just be meaningless words. Let us hold them truly liable for the conduct of their officials.”