The African Union has launched an effort to rid East Africa of colonial-era defamation and sedition laws. Since independence, many countries have used them to clamp down on freedom of the press.
The effort to have the laws repealed is being led by Pansy Tlakula, the AU’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information. In a statement, she said, “"Criminal defamation laws are nearly always used to punish legitimate criticism of powerful people, rather than protect the right to a reputation.”
This month, she met with government and NGO representatives to identity which laws limit investigative journalism into alleged corruption, or government or business wrongdoing.
A number of freedom of expression groups are applauding or supporting the effort, such as Britain’s Article 19 and the U.S. - based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.
Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s East Africa consultant, said, “Criminal defamation laws have been a thorn in the side of journalists in East Africa and the Horn of Africa for decades in most countries. I mean, when you look at somewhere like Tanzania, for example, a lot of these laws actually came from the colonial era. So they’ve been around for almost a century, in fact.”
Rhodes said the laws make it difficult for the press to report on issues involving powerful officials or business people.
“Quite often they just simply refer to the courts. They consider it an insult or some other form of libel and that way they can silence the press. Because once you throw a journalist in jail he or she will never ever report on these kinds of issues again – or at least they’ll be far more careful and probably apply a lot more self-censorship,” he said.
There can be little if any burden of proof required when leveling defamation or libel allegations against journalists.
“Quite often,” he said, “the constitution really upholds a robust free press. But when it comes down to actual practice quite often these authorities don’t even bother with a burden of proof, but go straight directly to the state prosecutor to censor the press.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists consultant says getting rid of these laws is one goal – preventing them from being replaced with something just as bad is another.
“The problem with some of these anti-press laws is they’re a bit like a weed. Once you’ve hacked off one, another dandelion pops up. We’re seeing other weeds growing up, such as anti-terrorism laws. And this has been a huge, huge problem for Ethiopian journalists since 2009. We now have five Ethiopian journalists incarcerated on what we consider trumped-up terrorism charges,” he said.
Rhodes says while the AU rapporteur’s campaign will initially focus on East and the Horn of Africa regions, she’s expected to expand the campaign to the rest of the continent.