The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) have welcomed the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights’ landmark decision of 5 December in the case of journalist Issa Lohé Konaté against Burkina Faso. The Court ruled that the government had violated the reporter’s right to freedom of expression, following his 12 months jail sentence handed down in 2012 for having accused a public prosecutor of corruption. In a binding decision which sets a precedent for all African states, the court ordered Burkina Faso to amend its law on defamation.
"We welcome this magnificent victory for press freedom. The African Court has delivered an extraordinary first ruling on press freedom which will have a knock on effect on the legislation in all African countries forcing them to change their law on defamation. African governments should now amend their laws, drop pending criminal defamation charges, and free those jailed under such laws,” said IFJ’s President Jim Boumelha.
Issa Lohé Konaté, editor of the Burkina Faso weekly L’Ouragan (The Hurricane) newspaper, was arrested in 2012, tried and convicted of defaming Burkinabe State Prosecutor, Placide Nikiéma. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined 6,000 euros. The arrest was a result of the publication of two articles alleging abuse of power and corruption by the prosecutor’s office.
“I am very pleased with this judgment. The African Court has recognized the injustice I have suffered. Not only am I happy from a personal point of view, but also because this decision of the Court will have positive implications for all my fellow journalists who face great risks, including, as I did, imprisonment, for reporting on issues that matter. This is a victory for the entire profession," Konaté told reporters.
In March 2014, 18 NGOs intervened in the Konaté case at the African Court in Arusha, Tanzania, to address growing concerns over the use of criminal defamation laws to censor journalists and others in Africa, arguing that they are incompatible with freedom of expression and severely undermine the democratic rights of the media and concerned citizens to hold their governments to account.
"We applaud this decision of the African Court in line with our plans to fight criminal libel through litigatigation, and campaings to decriminalise libel laws" said Mohamed Garba, President of FAJ.
According to international norms on freedom of expression standards, criminal defamations laws should be considered a civil matter and not a crime punishable with imprisonment. These laws are often used by governments to jail journalists like Konaté, silence critical voices and deprive public information about officials’ misconduct. The Court has ruled that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression while it should only be used in restricted circumstances such as incitement to violence.
The decision is a victory for Konaté and his legal team consisting of Nani Jansen, John Jones QC and Steven Finizio.
For more information, please contact IFJ on + 32 2 235 22 17
The IFJ represents more than 600 000 journalists in 134 countries