ACHPR 63: Tackling violations of free expression

The 63rd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) took place in Banjul, The Gambia from 19t October to7 November 2018.

Set up in 1987, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is one of the organs of the African Union, granted the interpretive mandate to guide state and non-state actors in the continent on how to realize the progressive aspirations not just for freedom of expression and access to information but general human rights as stated in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, an international human rights instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms in the African continent.

During the session, we advocated for action to be taken to address serious threats to freedom of expression in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sough Sudan, as well as engaging on the review of Togo.

Ethiopia: Cementing Progress So Far Through Institutional and Legal Reform

For Ethiopia, we reflected on how the reforming political environment can be used to ensure that all persons detained for exercising their freedom of expression are not only unconditionally released, but how a multi-stakeholder approach can be adopted in reforming the institutions that have been responsible for these violations in the past.

Our partners from the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations will also share with us progress in the drafting of a new Charities and Societies Proclamation, a CSOs regulation policy that members of the Consortium believe can unchain human rights organizations hindered in their work by the existing one. The Consortium is so far made up of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, Vision Ethiopia Congress for Democracy, Advocate Ethiopia, Developmental Justice National Association, and Sara-Justice from All Women Association.

Uganda: Protest Is a Form of Expression

Uganda has for the most part of this year been in the limelight for being an aggressor against peoples right to assembly. Through protests, Ugandans have confronted those in power in a disruptive manner, often times the only way to get their voices heard in a country where security officers are often deployed by the Presidency to attack and arrest any dissenters.

In the wake of recent changes in the presidential age limit, widespread protests rocked parts of the country, with approximately 100 civilians, six opposition legislators and at least nine journalists being detained unlawfully for their participation and coverage of the protests. More importantly, our research highlighted that in the period May 2017-April 2018, 71 freedom of expression violations had been committed and yet no redress has been reported. These violations included 44 counts of threats being made to journalists, 26 FM stations being shut down, and one media house being closed down. Security officers and government officials are the major perpetrators of threats and attacks. 

Tanzania: Legislative Suffocation of Expression and Truth

Similarly, in Tanzania the increasingly authoritarian political leadership has continued to be a major enabler and perpetrator of violations against freedom of expression. There were 19 reported violations of freedom of expression in Tanzania between May 2017 and 2018, with four media shut downs, three incidences of police harassment, one disappearance of a journalist, one exiled human rights defender (HRD), two cases of HRDs being threatened for doing their work, one arrest of a journalist, and one reported physical attack.

At the same time, it is important to note that Tanzania currently has 10 laws limiting freedom of expression in different capacities with the most recent being the September 2018 amendments to the Statistics Act 2015 that criminalizes the dissemination or communication of any statistics intended to distort or invalidate official statistics. Other problematic statutes include the 1976 Newspapers Act, Cybercrimes Act 2015, Media Services Act 2015, Access to Information Act 2016, and the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018.

We also have concerns that following October anti-gay comments by Paul Makonda, Dar Es Salaam’s Regional Commissioner, hundreds of LGBTQI activists have gone into hiding and 10 gay men have been arrested. Though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has distanced itself from Makonda’s statements, the environment remains dangerous for those identifying as LGBTQI and those advocating for their freedoms and rights. In addition to facilitating and promoting freedom of expression through solving the issues highlighted above, the Commission should also urge the Tanzanian state to address ongoing discrimination against LGBTQI people.

South Sudan: Fragile Political Environment Poses Threat to Redress of Expression Violations

Though a new settlement between the two warring factions led by the President and First Vice President offers the latest opportunity for an end to the civil war in the country, the largely fragile political environment continues to pose a threat to freedom of expression and access to information.

In February this year, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stated in a report that there had been 112 reported cases of violations of freedom of expression on journalists and human rights defenders between July 2016 and December 2017. In addition to more violations in 2018, there exists a heavy cloud of self-censorship that highly affects free expression and access to information in the country.

A representative of Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) shared during the session what kind of support can be offered by civil society to institutions such as the South Sudan National Human Rights Commission to bolster their interventions in building capacity of the state to promote, protect, and fulfill human rights.

Kenya: Impunity Emboldening Perpetrators for More Violations

Our monitoring of the freedom of expression terrain in Kenya shows that between May 2017 – April 2018, there were 94 incidents of violations. Out of these, there were 86 cases of journalists being threatened for their work. Out of these, 13 incidents were threats by the police, 12 from political actors, seven from state officials, and two from unknown persons.

As of October 2018, there hasn’t been any motion whatsoever in resolving these cases of violations. Equally discouraging is the fact that the April 2015 killing of journalist John Kituyi has not been resolved to date. Furthermore, there hasn’t been any closure on the much covered TV shutdown of January 30 2018 where the national government shut down signals of 3 TV stations for broadcasting live the mock-swearing in of an opposition leader.

Togo: Review against human rights commitments

Togo presented its combined 6th, 7th and 8th periodic reports from 2011 to 2016, and underwent a review of its compliance with the Banjul Charter during the session. The review highlighted concerns, reflected in our shadow report, around the working environment of human rights defenders in the country, as well as efforts by government to shut down radio stations and the internet, and the continued use of repressive laws.

Eritrea: ACHPR grants provisional measures on Kidane incommunicado detention

As part of our statement on rife impunity on human rights violations especially as regards freedom of expression and access to information in Eritrea, we highlighted to the Commission the September 2018 detention of former finance minister Berhane Kidane who is still detained incommunicado. He had just released a book and audio-recorded message critical of the President. Encouragingly, after the case was brought through Communication 704/18 – Berhane Abrehe Kidane (represented by Solomon Weldekirstos and Eritrean Law Society) v. The State of Eritrea by the Eritrea Law Society, the Commission granted Provisional Measures on 29 October, urging the state to end Kidane’s incommunicado detention, allow him access to a lawyer, inform him of the charges against him, ensure he is not subject to mistreatment in custody and enable him access to medical care. Other organizations that contributed in the case at hand were Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ); Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria; East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (DefendDefenders); Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA); Reporters Without Boarders Swedish Section. The Eritrean Government has been requested to report back to the Commission on the implementation of the Provisional Measures within 15 days of receipt of the request.

Maintaining the ACHPR’s independence

We were also part of essential discussions on maintaining the independence of the Commission following Decision 1015 by the Executive Council of the African Union, which states that the ACHPR does not enjoy independence from the organs of the AU, and resulted in a worrying decision by the ACHPR to withdraw observer status from the Coalition of African Lesbians.