Africa journalists most persecuted human rights defenders

Journalists in Africa are the most persecuted group of human rights defenders in the continent. So it was a big win for IFEX members that free expression and the protection of journalists made the agenda for the first time in the history of the NGO forum, held on 7-10 November in advance of the Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) 48th session in Banjul, Gambia. Their recommendations will feed into – and hopefully influence – the ACHPR, meeting until 24 November.

According to Fatou Jagne Senghore of ARTICLE 19, who chaired the panel, in every corner of the continent, journalists’ security is compromised, especially for those who work in conflict or post-conflict zones. “A decade into the new millennium, assassination of journalists is all too common as has been witnessed in Nigeria, Angola, Uganda, Cameroon and Somalia,” said Omar Faruk Osman, president of the African Federation of Journalists as well as head of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ).

Lengthy jail times for journalists – often under draconian laws that criminalise press offences – continue to be one of the biggest threats to free expression in Africa. In Cameroon, for instance, over a dozen journalists have been taken to court over the past year. Some journalists are still languishing in jail without ever being brought to court.

Consider Gambia’s “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, a journalist at the “Daily Observer” newspaper. Manneh was arrested in Banjul in July 2006 by national intelligence officers, a week after he allegedly passed on “damaging” information at an African Union summit. He has been held incommunicado ever since – even after an African regional court in 2008 ruled his detention illegal and ordered the authorities to release him.

Confronted by a delegation of participants from the NGO forum, Edward Gomez, Gambia’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, denied that Manneh is being held by the authorities. But he also promised that no journalist will be denied his/her legal rights during his term in office. He also vowed to investigate the provisions in the Criminal Code and the Newspaper Amendment Act that make press offences a crime punishable with jail time.

Getting rid of Africa’s insult and criminal defamation laws was one of the key resolutions that the NGO Forum adopted and brought forth to the Africa Commission.

IFEX members, including from the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), also emphasised that the judiciary hasn’t done much to protect journalists. Rather, the courts have been used by the authorities to crush dissent. Take Tunisia, where TV correspondent Fahem Boukaddous was tried and sentenced to four years in jail for reporting on protests against unemployment and corruption in a local mining industry. IFEX-TMG members have been lobbying to free Boukaddous, an asthmatic who recently terminated a five-week hunger strike.

The lack of independence of the judiciary was not only a problem in Tunisia, but also in the Gambia, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, members at the NGO forum said. They called upon the African Union members to “respect the provisions of their various constitutions with regards to the independence of the judiciary and separation of powers.”

Even in Southern Africa, often commended for being Africa’s free expression beacon, Freedom House noted that there are no countries with a free press. South Africa faces a new danger in the form of a proposed Media Tribunal and Protection of Information Law that hearken back to apartheid days. The forum members called for the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the chair of the African Commission to intervene and provide support and guidance to South Africa as it deliberates the proposals.

An unprecedented number of IFEX members attended this year’s NGO Forum, including Freedom House, NUSOJ, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the West African Journalists Association (WAJA), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), ARTICLE 19 and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

In the coming months they will be putting pressure on African states to comply with their resolutions.


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