African Court hears first free speech case

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Posted on: 
17 Mar 2014

This week, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights will hear its first freedom of expression case. Brought by MLDI, it concerns the case of Lohé Issa Konaté, a journalist from Burkina Faso who served a 12 month prison sentence, was fined the equivalent of 18 annual average wages and whose newspaper was shut down for insulting and defaming a local prosecutor.

In August 2012, Lohé Issa Konaté, the editor of the newspaper L'Ouragan, published reports accusing Placide Nikiéma, the State prosecutor and the country’s main criminal court, of corruption and abuse of power. The reports alleged that a high-profile case of counterfeiting had been shelved following his intervention and that he had also intervened in a case concerning the illegal trade in second-hand cars.

In response, the prosecutor filed a criminal complaint and Konaté was prosecuted and sentenced to 12 months in prison. He was furthermore ordered to pay a fine and damages totalling US$12,000, and L'Ouragan was ordered to be closed for 6 months. The convictions were upheld on appeal.

MLDI has taken on Konaté's case and now represents him before the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. MLDI has asked the Court to rule not only that Konaté's conviction violates his right to freedom of expression; but also that criminal laws should never be used in a dispute about reputation, and that imprisonment and closure of a media outlet are unduly harsh sanctions. Such a ruling would have an impact across African countries, most of which still enforce harsh criminal libel laws against journalists.

The case will be a landmark freedom of expression case at the African Court. A ruling by the Court that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression would mark a significant step forward for the protection of the right to freedom of expression across the continent. 

Several journalists associations and human rights organisations have intervened in support of the application, including the Centre For Human Rights; Committee To Protect Journalists; Media Institute Of Southern Africa; Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network; Pan African Lawyers Union; the Southern Africa Litigation Centre; World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers; PEN International and the PEN centers of Malawi, Algeria, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Africa. The intervention by these organisations elaborates on the negative impact that criminal defamation laws have had on the development of journalism across Africa and the real ‘chilling effect’ caused by the prospect of imprisonment for a libel case. Lawyers for the Pan African Lawyers Union and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre will be addressing the court on this issue; marking the first time that interveners will have been allowed to speak before the court as well as provide written submissions.  

The hearing before the Court will be on March 20-21 and a ruling is expected by the middle of the year.

Konaté is represented before the Court by MLDI's Senior Legal Counsel Nani JansenJohn Jones QC of Doughty Street Chambers and Steven Finizio of Wilmer Hale   

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