As the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) joins the world in commemorating the International Day for Universal Access to Information, SALC condemns the increased use of ‘terrorism’ laws to crackdown on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa. Arrests of the media and civil society actors under trumped-up terrorism laws send a chilling effect that stifles free expression and bars the public from access to information.
On 20 September 2021, a DRC journalist, Pierre Sosthène Kambidi working for Actualite.cd was arbitrarily arrested on unclear charges and subsequently, alleged ‘terrorism’ related charges for having in his possession video footage of 2 U.N. experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan who were killed in the country’s Kasai Central region in 2017. He was placed in custody when initially he had been called in as a witness as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The crackdown on the media and civil society actors under the strength of terrorism laws is not only in DRC but a continental concern. In Eswatini, the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008 (Terrorism Act) and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1938 (Sedition Act) have frequently been used to suppress any speech that is critical of the Government and the Monarch. Currently, two Members of Parliament in Eswatini are languishing in custody on trumped-up terrorism charges.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) promote the rights to freedom of expression and access to information under articles 9 and 19 respectively. The United Nations Human Rights Council has elaborated in General Comment No. 34 on article 19 of the ICCPR that the media has a crucial role in informing the public about acts of terrorism and its capacity to operate should not be unduly restricted. In this regard, journalists should not be penalised for carrying out their legitimate activities.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) Declaration of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Declaration) states in Principle 22(5) that freedom of expression shall not be restricted on public order or national security grounds unless there is a real risk of harm to a legitimate interest and there is a close causal link between the risk of harm and the expression. States must also take steps to prevent attacks on journalists and other media practitioners such as through arbitrary arrests and detention as provided in Principle 20(2) of the Declaration.
SALC draws the attention of African States to the ACHPR Resolution 368 on Implementation of the Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa which notes with concern that African States are still enacting and implementing certain aspects of counter-terrorism legislation that are in violation of fundamental human rights of populations also resulting in the shrinking of civic space. In addition, the resolution reminds African States to adhere to the ACHPR Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa which lay out the need to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in enacting counter-terrorism laws. In the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 7/36, the Human Rights Council stressed the need to ensure that invocation of national security, including counter-terrorism, is not used unjustifiably or arbitrarily to restrict the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
To this end, SALC calls for the following;
- The immediate release of Pierre Sosthène Kambidi in the DRC and Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube in Eswatini and dropping of all ‘terrorism’ related charges.
- The reform of counter-terrorism legislative provisions in Africa which are a barrier to the enjoyment of freedom of expression and access to information in line with international human rights standards.