A large group of media and human rights organizations in Africa came together last month in Arusha, Tanzania, to address growing concerns over the use of criminal defamation laws to censor journalists and others in Africa before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The African Court granted the group leave to act as amicus curiae, or friends of the court, in a case which raises the use of criminal defamation and insult laws to silence government critics. Mr. Issa Lohé Konaté, the editor of the Burkina Faso-based weekly L’Ouragan, was convicted of defaming local State Persecutor, Placide Nikiéma, after he published two articles raising questions about alleged abuse of power by the prosecutor’s office, particularly in the handling of a high-profile case of currency counterfeiting. He was not only sentenced to 12 months in prison but was also fined 4 million CFA francs (6,000 Euros) on October 29, 2012.
Having served his prison sentence, Mr. Konaté has made an application to the African Court on the grounds that his conviction violates his right to freedom of expression as protected by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The coalition of human rights groups, in a letter to the Court, explains that their interest and expertise is in press freedom, the rule of law, and the creation and maintenance of an enabling environment for democracy and the defense of human rights. The group asserts that criminal defamation and insult laws severely restrict the space within which civil society and the citizens of a country may question their government or advocate for human rights.
The group said, “The criminalization of defamation has an adverse effect on the justice system of any society, journalists, lawyers and other human rights defenders face serious threats of harm from the abuse of defamation and insult laws to restrict expression and obstruct exposure of human rights violations. “
The coalition includes the Centre for Human Rights; Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ); Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network (Pan Africa HRD-Net); Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU); PEN International and the following national PEN Centres: Algeria, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Africa; Southern Africa Litigation Centre; and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA).