Late last week, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights held a public hearing for the Matter of Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso, the first freedom of expression case to be heard by the Court. In this landmark case, Konaté — and a number of journalists’ associations and human rights organisations who have intervened in support — are asking the Court to rule that criminal defamation is a violation of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution of Burkina Faso, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
An unfortunate relic of colonialism, criminal defamation laws are “nearly always used to punish legitimate criticism of powerful people, rather than protect the right to a reputation.” Recognizing that these laws are a scourge against freedom of speech, the Court’s peer institutions have spoken out against them in a clear and unified voice. Since 2010, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the complementary body to the Court, has been calling for the repeal of these laws across the continent. In accordance with this directive, the African Union’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, who also is a Member of the Commission, has worked ceaselessly to decriminalise expression in Africa. And, in May 2013, the Pan African Parliament launched press freedom campaigns in all five regions of Africa and also called upon African leaders to sign the Declaration of Table Mountain.
The Konaté case presents the Court with a prime opportunity to stand with its peer institutions and rule that criminal defamation laws are incompatible with an independent, democratic Africa.