The African Union’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information, Commissioner Pansy Tlakula, has launched an auspicious initiative in East Africa to counter criminal defamation and sedition laws. Since independence, authorities and business interests in the East and Horn region have used criminal laws on sedition, libel, and insult–often relics of former, colonial administrations–to silence their critics in the press. “Criminal defamation laws are nearly always used to punish legitimate criticism of powerful people, rather than protect the right to a reputation,” Tlakula said in a statement.
This month, the commissioner convened the first meeting with government and civil society representatives from across the East and Horn region to discuss ways to engage governments to repeal these laws. Tlakula plans to hold similar discussions across the continent, she told me. The commission, with support from partners such as the U.K.-based freedom of expression group Article 19, plans to identify specific national laws to be targeted for repeal and propose alternative remedies for adoption. “We are also trying to get insights,” said Article 19 East Africa Director Henry Maina, “What, for instance, has led the political process in Uganda and Kenya to repeal criminal defamation laws?” Kenya and Uganda are the only countries in the East and Horn region to repeal such laws.
The fact that the initiative was launched in the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura, is significant. Tlakula said the commission chose Bujumbura due to Burundi’s recently passed media law which, among other things, allows for fining or jailing journalists for any reporting the government considers offensive to the head of state or public figures. Less than a week after it was put into force last month, police summoned two journalists for questioning over their stories, according to the Burundi Journalists Union. Many within Burundi’s vibrant press corps have pledged to combat the new law and welcome the commission’s initiative. “How can we not report cases of corruption and [other] crimes sometimes orchestrated by agents of the state? We must deny self-censorship,” Vincent Nkeshimana, the director of Radio Isanganiro, told me.
Other East African countries have maintained criminal defamation or sedition laws for decades. The 1976 Newspaper Act in Tanzania, for instance, allows the government wide discretionary powers to ban a publication if they consider it seditious. Tlakula says she plans to challenge the constitutionality of such laws in the national courts.
Sedition or criminal defamation laws are also used to silence critical reporting in the Horn of Africa. Authorities in the semi-autonomous republic of Somaliland used criminal defamation laws earlier this month to sentence manager Mohamed Ahmed Jama and editor Hussein Hassan Abdullahi of a critical daily, Hubaal, to one and two years’ imprisonment, respectively. The daily published articles that implicated the first family in a corrupt goods procurement deal and the Ethiopian Consulate in misusing office to import illegal goods, Mohamed said–leading to a raid on the newspaper’s office, suspension of the paper, and now imprisonment. Hubaal’s lawyer, Mohamoud Abdirahman, has appealed the sentence and Mohamed and Hussein are preparing to challenge the ruling. “The criminal defamation laws are being misused, they are being pushed for the sake of personal interest,” Abdirahman said. The increasing use of the criminal code to silence the press contravenes the constitution and the press law which require civil, rather than criminal, penalties for press offenses, he said.
Tlakula plans to conduct similar launches across the rest of the continent in the weeks ahead, particularly focusing on countries with a history of misusing criminal defamation laws such as Zimbabwe, the Gambia, and Zambia, she said.
UPDATE: The third paragraph has been corrected to reflect that comments were made by Vincent Nkeshimana. In a previous version of this post, the comments were incorrectly attributed to freelance journalist Gordien Nahimana.