African Commission’s Revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa should be a call to action

DuniaMekonnenTegegnAuthor: Dunia Mekonnen
Almami Cyllah Fellow, Amnesty International, USA

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) revised its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa to address new technological advances, online activity, and internet restrictions throughout Africa, after deliberating on the draft beginning from April 2018. The Special Rapporteur collected comments from civil society, States parties, and others on the new draft Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa. The Declaration, is based on a series of resolutions adopted by the African Commission in 2012 and 2016.

Access to information is a central component of freedom of expression. When citizens are misinformed and are unable to access basic public information, they can’t fully realise their right to freedom of expression. Access to information is defined as the right to seek, access, and receive information. In General Comment No 34 on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Human Rights Committee elaborated that state parties should take account of the extent to which developments in information and communication technologies have substantially changed communication practices around the world. In addition to the ICCPR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) discusses the right to access information and the internet more broadly. Likewise, in his 2016 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression emphasised that the right to record, film and use online media is part of the right to seek and receive information which is protected under article 19/2 of the ICCPR. Access to information is also recognised under regional legal frameworks such as  the African Charter, the Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa and the Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. These legal frameworks provide safeguards to access to information.

In the current global world, social media surveillance threatens to clutch the civic space, particularly in the digital sphere, and Africa is not an exception. In some parts of the continent, the market for social media surveillance is booming, benefiting autocratic governments. Many African countries also employ social media monitoring projects.

In several countries, governments have restricted access to specific apps and platforms used by opposition groups to mobilise or resorted to shutting down the internet altogether. In 2018, 8 African countries experienced internet-related interventions. In 2019, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe all cut off internet services. These actions were responses to election violence and or ongoing protests in these countries.

Chad closed social media platforms, including Twitter and WhatsApp for about 300 days between March 2018 and January 2019. The social media block started on Mar. 28, 2018 following increased tensions after a national conference of politicians and traditional chiefs recommended constitutional changes that would allow President Idris Déby to rule until 2033. Similarly, in a recent move, the Nigeria government introduced the Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulation and Other Related Matters bill that would further stifle the space for critics, human rights reporting and accountability in the country. For example, part 5 of the bill poses a huge threat to online freedoms as internet intermediaries, including social media companies which are put under pressure to conform to regulations that clearly violate the enjoyment of free speech.

The stifling of access to information reduces citizens’ ability to efficiently access information about basic services, fully participate in the social, economic and political developments of their countries or hold their governments accountable for public expenditure, which can in turn poorly affect their rights to health, employment and housing. They can also not fight corruption. The lack of access to information particularly online media also hinders the engagement of Civil Society Organisations with human rights mechanisms such as the African Commission on Human and People Rights (ACHPR) and the like. This is mainly through a lack of transparency and access to accurate and complete information for CSOs taking a part in these forums. Internet disruptions and distortion strategies also played an important role in elections in Sub-Saharan Africa. Studies indicate, about 80% of governments restrict mobile internet service and shut down online media during elections or public protests. It is in recognition of these emerging threats, and based on the various challenges between 2012 and 2016, that the ACHPR adopted the Revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. One of the major factors contributing to this revision is that the African Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of 2012 lacked protection to online media. The revised declaration consolidates developments on freedom of expression and access to information, including taking account the AU treaties and soft law standards and the emerging jurisprudence of judicial and quasi-judicial organs of the African Union. The declaration underscores the importance of media diversity and pluralism. It promotes the safety of journalists and other media practitioners, including protection from the murder, extrajudicial killings, torture, and other inhuman treatments. In a stronger sense, the declaration bans the inappropriate conduct of law enforcement, security intelligence, and military personnel, prohibits custodial sentences for criminal defamation and prohibits speeches that advocate for national, racial, and religious hatred.

If properly implemented, the revised declaration could have a transformative impact on the internet, in terms of giving voice to citizens of Africans and meaningfully enhancing their ability to access information, while improving diversity and reporting. It could create a bridge across the digital divide, which the continent is currently experiencing. It could also address the emerging practice of states intruding or restricting access to telecommunication services, including the Internet, social media, and messaging services, during elections.

Nonetheless, the effective implementation of the declaration will require both political will and increased capacity as is in many African countries, online media, offline media, and the private press don’t function properly in some countries. Further, existing freedom of information laws, including, the African Union model law on access to information and freedom of expression, are not being enforced. It is in light of this, friends of Africa can play a critical role in the protection of the free expression and access to information.

Recommendations

  1. The US Congress should robustly support access to information and freedom of expression by passing H.R. 345. Responding to widening threats to freedoms of the press and expression around the world, reaffirming the centrality of a free and independent press to the health of democracy, and reaffirming freedom of the press as a priority of the United States in promoting democracy, human rights, and good governance on World Press Freedom Day.
  2. The US government and other international actors should invest in capacity building and education initiatives to support the effective implementation of the revised declaration.
  3. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should make public interventions where violations of the right to freedom of expression and access to information occur.
  4. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should support research initiatives based on the declaration at country level to advance the work of the Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of expression and access to information.

About the Author:

Dunia Mekonnen is a graduate of the Gorgetown Law Centre and currently works as Almami Cyllah Fellow at Amnesty International USA.



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