Homegrown African decision promotes press freedom and protects human rights defenders

February 5, 2015

A court has ruled that criminal defamation laws cannot include custodial sentences or sanctions that are disproportionate, such as excessive fines. (Gallo)

Simon Delaney, a media lawyer and advisor to the Decriminalisation of Expression Campaign, in The Guardian of 4 February reports on an important judgement by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on press freedom by ruling that criminal defamation laws cannot include custodial sentences or sanctions that are disproportionate, such as excessive fines.

[In 2012, Lohé Issa Konaté, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Burkina Faso, was found guilty of criminal defamation and sentenced to 12 months in prison after he published two articles accusing a public prosecutor of abusing his power. Konaté‘s paper was shut down for six months and he was ordered to pay an exorbitant fine, plus compensation and costs. Konaté argued that he was wrongfully punished for legitimate investigative journalism and his rights to freedom of expression were violated. A coalition of 18 media and human rights organisations added that criminal defamation laws undermine the democratic rights of the media and citizens to hold their governments to account. The court found that, although the Burkinabé law served the legitimate objective to protect the honour and reputation of public officials, the penalty of imprisonment was a disproportionate interference in the exercise of freedom of expression by Konaté and journalists in general. The court ordered Burkina Faso to change its criminal defamation laws and pay compensation to Konaté.]

The judgment is significant not so much because of the content of the decision (which is in line with international standards] but because it is homegrown ‘African’ decision.

The judgment, which is binding on African Union member states, gives impetus to the continent-wide campaign to decriminalise defamation. It also paves the way for the decriminalisation of ubiquitous laws prohibiting “the publication of matter with intent to bring the president into hatred, ridicule or contempt” and “the publication of false news with intent to cause fear and alarm to the public”.

Homegrown African decision promotes press freedom | Opinion | Analysis | Mail & Guardian.

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