WAN-IFRA hopes this ruling will be another nail in the coffin for criminal defamation in Africa, and that African states will take note and repeal with urgency the out-dated criminal defamation and libel laws that restrict freedom of speech on the continent.
In March 2014, 18 non-governmental organisations, including WAN-IFRA, intervened as ‘friends of the court’ in the Konaté case at the African Court in Arusha, Tanzania, to address growing concerns over the use of criminal defamation laws to censor journalists and others in Africa.
The Court ordered Burkina Faso to amend its legislation in order to make it compliant with the various articles and charters relating to freedom of expression, including The African Charter and to report back to the Court within two years.
Upon hearing this news, Mr Konaté said that the “African Court has recognized the injustice I have suffered. Not only am I happy from a personal point of view, but also because this decision will have positive implications for all my fellow journalists who face great risks, including, as I did, imprisonment for reporting on issues that matter. This is a victory for the entire profession.”
“This is a landmark decision that will change the free expression landscape on the African Continent. The decision will not only give impetus to the continent-wide campaign to decriminalise defamation but will also pave the way for the decriminalisation of similar laws such as insult laws and publication of false news” said Adv Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.
In 2007 inCape Town, South Africa, the world’s press committed to a long-term campaign to encourage African heads of state to repeal criminal defamation through WAN-IFRA’s Declaration of Table Mountain campaign. The Declaration is an earnest appeal to all Africans, particularly those in power, to recognise that the political and economic progress they seek flourishes in a climate where the press is free and independent of governmental, political or economic control. The Declaration aims to repeal criminal defamation and libel laws and set a free press higher on the agenda.
“WAN-IFRA wishes to express its gratitude to Mr Konaté and his legal team for having the courage to take this to the highest court in Africa. This landmark ruling is a shot in the arm to the ongoing campaign to have a free press in Africa”, said Alison Meston, WAN-IFRA Director of Global Campaigns.
“Criminal defamation laws not only prevent journalists from speaking truth to power, they prevent citizens from fully participating in their democracy”, Ms Meston said. “This decision affects all Africans, not just media professionals. The hard work begins now and we encourage civil society, media professionals and law makers in Burkina Faso and indeed all African states, to heed this decision from the African Court and commit to repeal criminal defamation”.
WAN-IFRA is working with a number of states to repeal criminal defamation laws, including Liberia, Tanzania and Zambia. Niger recently celebrated a national day of press freeodm after it signed the Declaration of Table Mountain on 30 November 2011.
Further information on the Konaté case:
In 2012 Issa Lohé Konaté, the editor of the Burkina Faso-based weekly L’Ouragan, was sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined 4 000 000 CFA francs (6 000 Euros). Konaté was convicted of defaming Burkinabé State Prosecutor, 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.
The amicus group argued that criminal defamation and insult laws are incompatible with freedom of expression and severely undermine the democratic rights of the media and concerned citizens to hold their governments to account. Governments routinely use these laws to silence critical voices and to deprive the public of information about the misconduct of officials. Journalists, lawyers and activists who should be free to carry out their work without fear are instead vilified and criminalised under these laws. The systematic denial of freedom of expression leads countries down a slippery slope towards impunity and authoritarianism. A clear nexus links censorship to bad governance. A democratic society cannot function without an active commitment to freedom of expression.
Burkina Faso’s criminal defamation laws, like those in many African countries, are a relic of colonialism. These laws are incompatible with an independent, democratic Africa. Approximately 95% of the countries in the world have criminal libel laws. In 2013, 211 journalists were imprisoned for carrying out their work. African countries are amongst the worst offenders in using criminal defamation laws to fine and imprison journalists.
WAN-IFRA, based in Paris, France, and Frankfurt, Germany, with subsidiaries in Singapore and India, is the global organisation of the world’s newspapers and news publishers. It represents more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries. Its core mission is to defend and promote press freedom, quality journalism and editorial integrity and the development of prosperous businesses.
For more information, please contact:
Alison Meston, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, France
The organisations that intervened as friends of the court in the Konaté case are:
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA
Centre for Human Rights, Pretoria, South Africa
Pan Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Pan Africa HRD-Net)
Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU)
PEN Nigeria Centre
PEN Sierra Leone
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC)
South African Pen Centre: Deborah Horn-Botha