3.27.2018
By Prudence Mutiso
The African Union must respond to freedom of expression concerns across the continent

A number of African governments are increasingly clamping down on freedom of expression. In an attempt to hold onto power and silence dissent, many governments in the region have routinely disrupted the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Freedom of expression is the first step towards identifying shared commonalities where the governments talk to their people and not past them. As part of its institutional reforms, the African Union must make it clear that freedom of expression is non-negotiable. The African Union must also commit to address the shrinking or non-existent civic space on the continent.

East Africa, once lauded as a pinnacle of emerging democracies, shows a worrying trend. In Ethiopia, thousands of civilians have suffered at the hands of the police during peaceful protests. In the lead-up to the February 2018 resignation of the Prime Minister, hundreds of innocent civilians lost their lives in protest of the government. Presently, journalists juggle between their work and court attendance due to the government’s severe restrictions on press freedom. In the last couple of years, the government has unjustly imprisoned dozens of journalists simply for reporting on its work. Once arbitrarily arrested, the journalists answer to charges such as “incitement,” “subversion” and “terrorism,” which attract lengthy prison terms.

In Uganda, the government continues to restrict civic space by arresting civilians for exercising their right to protest. The Ugandan media and civil society has struggled to exercise their right to freedom of expression amid the limited space. The authorities have randomly arrested dozens of journalists in the last year for publishing reports critical of the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Uganda and Ethiopia rank among the top three in jailing of journalists in Africa. In Rwanda and Burundi, journalists and political dissidents face constant threats and attacks at the hands of authorities.

Crossing over to Kenya, until recently the country stood at the top of vibrant emerging democracies. However, the swearing-in of the self-proclaimed “People’s President” Raila Odinga in Nairobi in January 2018 triggered a grievous chain of reaction. Like never before, the government shut down four independent media stations. Authorities arbitrarily arrested opposition leaders and mysteriously moved them around the city, even deporting one in violation of court orders. Just like has become the norm during peaceful protests, the police lobbed teargas on civil society members demonstrating against the shutdown of the media stations.

Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya grants the right to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions to public authorities. Compared to the election cycle seven years ago, when Kenyans could peacefully demonstrate without the risk of teargas, baton whipping and running battles with the police, the situation has since deteriorated.

The common thread between Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi seems to be the government’s intolerance to dissent and criticism. A Kenyan wants the government to uphold the rule of law; an Ethiopian wants equitable distribution of national resources; a Ugandan wants the provision of sanitary towels to enable girls to stay in school; a Rwandese and Burundian want the space to form their own political opinion. For the journalists, all they want is for the authorities to respect and uphold freedom of the press. Are these things too much to ask for?  

Unless governments declare a state of emergency or meet other specific conditions, authorities cannot justify limiting civil and political rights. Freedom of expression is neither a Western nor an African ideal; it is an essential element for any stable democracy. Fifty-three member States of the AU have signed and ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The African Court has stated that freedom of expression forms the cornerstone for a free and democratic society. Likewise, in its General Comment No. 34, the Human Rights Committee expressed that freedom of opinion and expression are indispensable conditions for any society.  

The Committee further noted that penalizing any media outlet or journalist for being critical of the government is an unnecessary constraint. Rwanda through its President, Paul Kagame, now chairs the African Union for the year 2018. In line with the African Union’s 2018 theme, the chairperson recently identified key strategies to transform Africa in the fight against corruption. As key agents in fighting corruption, citizens must have the space to hold their leaders accountable for their actions or omissions.

For Africa to flourish and ascend the echelons of democracy, the AU must lead by example. The people must jealously guard the gains made to advance democracy and the rule of law. It does not matter which side of the tribal or political divide one supports, democracy and development go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other

A number of African governments are increasingly clamping down on freedom of expression. In an attempt to hold onto power and silence dissent, many governments in the region have routinely disrupted the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Freedom of expression is the first step towards identifying shared commonalities where the governments talk to their people and not past them. As part of its institutional reforms, the African Union must make it clear that freedom of expression is non-negotiable. The African Union must also commit to address the shrinking or non-existent civic space on the continent.

East Africa, once lauded as a pinnacle of emerging democracies, shows a worrying trend. In Ethiopia, thousands of civilians have suffered at the hands of the police during peaceful protests. In the lead-up to the February 2018 resignation of the Prime Minister, hundreds of innocent civilians lost their lives in protest of the government. Presently, journalists juggle between their work and court attendance due to the government’s severe restrictions on press freedom. In the last couple of years, the government has unjustly imprisoned dozens of journalists simply for reporting on its work. Once arbitrarily arrested, the journalists answer to charges such as “incitement,” “subversion” and “terrorism,” which attract lengthy prison terms.

In Uganda, the government continues to restrict civic space by arresting civilians for exercising their right to protest. The Ugandan media and civil society has struggled to exercise their right to freedom of expression amid the limited space. The authorities have randomly arrested dozens of journalists in the last year for publishing reports critical of the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Uganda and Ethiopia rank among the top three in jailing of journalists in Africa. In Rwanda and Burundi, journalists and political dissidents face constant threats and attacks at the hands of authorities.

Crossing over to Kenya, until recently the country stood at the top of vibrant emerging democracies. However, the swearing-in of the self-proclaimed “People’s President” Raila Odinga in Nairobi in January 2018 triggered a grievous chain of reaction. Like never before, the government shut down four independent media stations. Authorities arbitrarily arrested opposition leaders and mysteriously moved them around the city, even deporting one in violation of court orders. Just like has become the norm during peaceful protests, the police lobbed teargas on civil society members demonstrating against the shutdown of the media stations.

Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya grants the right to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions to public authorities. Compared to the election cycle seven years ago, when Kenyans could peacefully demonstrate without the risk of teargas, baton whipping and running battles with the police, the situation has since deteriorated.

The common thread between Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi seems to be the government’s intolerance to dissent and criticism. A Kenyan wants the government to uphold the rule of law; an Ethiopian wants equitable distribution of national resources; a Ugandan wants the provision of sanitary towels to enable girls to stay in school; a Rwandese and Burundian want the space to form their own political opinion. For the journalists, all they want is for the authorities to respect and uphold freedom of the press. Are these things too much to ask for?  

Unless governments declare a state of emergency or meet other specific conditions, authorities cannot justify limiting civil and political rights. Freedom of expression is neither a Western nor an African ideal; it is an essential element for any stable democracy. Fifty-three member States of the AU have signed and ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The African Court has stated that freedom of expression forms the cornerstone for a free and democratic society. Likewise, in its General Comment No. 34, the Human Rights Committee expressed that freedom of opinion and expression are indispensable conditions for any society.  

The Committee further noted that penalizing any media outlet or journalist for being critical of the government is an unnecessary constraint. Rwanda through its President, Paul Kagame, now chairs the African Union for the year 2018. In line with the African Union’s 2018 theme, the chairperson recently identified key strategies to transform Africa in the fight against corruption. As key agents in fighting corruption, citizens must have the space to hold their leaders accountable for their actions or omissions.

For Africa to flourish and ascend the echelons of democracy, the AU must lead by example. The people must jealously guard the gains made to advance democracy and the rule of law. It does not matter which side of the tribal or political divide one supports, democracy and development go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.