Media stakeholders in East Africa come together on issue of journalists’ safety and impunity

By Victor Bwire, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Programmes Manager at the Media Council of Kenya

Journalists’ safety and protection remain an elusive dream in East Africa, even as governments in the region pass laws and sign up to international treaties that obligate them to ensure this.

Among the many reasons why the safety of journalists is a challenge in East Africa is the lack of coordination among media stakeholders, the lack of progressive media regulatory frameworks, weak journalism training and associations and a high level of normative frameworks that have not been translated into tangible interventions that address safety of journalists as issues, and which can lead to impunity for crimes against journalists.

Governments in East Africa have repeatedly declared that the safety of journalists is the primary responsibility of the state and the media as an important partner in building an inclusive society in the region. There are very strong provisions within the regional block, the East African Court of Justice and constitutional country provisions that provide for the protection of journalists as any other citizens including the right to safety and security, labour and right to life. Similarly, these countries are signatories to a number of regional and international treaties and pacts that obligates the state to provide security and protect the right to life for all its citizens. However, little initiative has been shown from governments to protect journalists, even by those working for governments through the state-run public broadcasters.

Both Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders’ global Freedom Index have shown declining press freedom in the region, apportioning poor and precarious working conditions for journalists adding to this state of affairs. The number of journalists and media workers in the region who are being arrested, harassed and threatened in the line of duty is increasing. Simultaneously, there is no proportionate increase in the number of investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators, a worrying trend.

Against this back-drop, actors from governments in the East African region, and media support groups marked the 2018 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on 2-3 November in Arusha, Tanzania, making a number of far reaching resolutions to end impunity for crimes against journalists.

The resolutions were largely premised on the acknowledgment that there already exists national, sub-regional, regional and international instruments relating to freedom of expression and safety of journalists, particularly Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights that must be adapted to national contexts and respected by governments in the region as a way of ensuring the safety and protection of journalists.

The participants came from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Somaliland, Madagascar and were aware of the existence of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which provides a framework for creating a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in conflict and non-conflict situations that involves a broad-based multi stakeholder approach to addressing the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. The participants reiterated the critical role of national, sub-regional, regional judicial and institutional frameworks in the promotion, protection and fulfilment of freedom of expression and safety of journalists, particularly the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights, and the East African Court of Justice.

The meeting noted that the safety and protection of journalists is critical, especially if Governments are intent on respecting and honouring the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.10. This Goal protects “Public access to information and fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”, and SDG 16.10.1 which requires member states and other stakeholders to monitor and report on the “number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months”.

The participants agreed to among other things strengthen national mechanisms for safety of journalists as multi-stakeholder vehicles for addressing the safety of journalists and tackling the issue of impunity for crimes against journalists; create and support robust monitoring, documentation and reporting systems to enable reports for different mechanisms e.g. SDG 16.10.1 reports; pursue judicial accountability for crimes against journalists by supporting investigative or data-driven journalism that highlights crimes against journalists which have not achieved judicial closure by the justice system; and build public awareness of the work of national mechanisms through engagement of various stakeholders to ensure buy-in and stimulate discussion and actions around the issue of impunity.

Additionally, they agreed to deepen strategic partnerships with the sub-regional bodies, particularly the East African Community and its organs, especially the East African Legislative Assembly and East African Court of Justice. The aim is to actively engage with and create learning and advocacy networks with regional bodies, particularly the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights; Pan-African Parliament, African Peer Review Mechanism and the African Union Commission.

Governments were also urged to create enabling legal and institutional frameworks on freedom of expression and safety of journalists, particularly the safety of women journalists, and to ratify the Protocol establishing the African Court of Human and People’s Rights. They were urged to submit a declaration for recognition of the jurisdiction of the Court under Article 34(6) in order to allow their citizens access to the services of the Court and enforcement of its judgments, particularly those on freedom of expression and safety of journalists. Recommendations also included domesticating the African Charter on Election, Democracy and Governance and designating government focal persons and support national mechanisms for safety of journalists.

More importantly, the participants requested states from the region to respond to the UNESCO Director General’s letters inquiring into the status of investigations regarding the killing of journalists and to ensure timely investigations and prosecutions in connection with crimes against journalists and adopt gender policies and create specific measures to address gender-based violence against female journalists.

UNESCO was urged to operationalise the MOU between UNESCO and the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights and negotiate agreements with African Union bodies such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Pan-African Parliament and the African Union Commission. Regional and sub-regional bodies were requested to appoint focal persons for freedom of safety of journalists to mainstream these fundamental freedoms in the work and mandate of the community.