African justice professionals talk about course on freedom of expression

UNESCO conducted interviews with two participants of a free online course in French entitled "International and African Standards on Freedom of Expression" for judicial actors in Africa.

Could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us why you decided to participate in this online course?

Magistrate Judge Béatrice Yameogo Sanon: I am Béatrice Yameogo Sanon, magistrate and currently a judge at the Court of Appeal in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

The Ministry of Justice has a file with the magistrates’ emails, which is used to bring information to the attention of the magistrates. This is how I received the information for the training on freedom of expression. I had never received any training in the field before, so I decided to educate myself by registering and following the five-week course. I must say that it has been very beneficial for me. I understood how the right to freedom of expression was as fundamental as the right to life, the right to decent housing or the right to health. The right to freedom of expression is a right that leads to the realization of other rights. I really learned a lot through this training and I thank all those who supervised us.

Lawyer Gaëlle Beng: My name is Gaëlle Beng and I am a lawyer at the Yaoundé Bar. It was the team of lawyers here that made me aware of this training, and it seemed interesting to me since freedom of expression is being undermined in Cameroon at the moment. Most journalists here face abuse, so I thought this training could help me gain a better understanding of this type of litigation if I were ever to work on such a case. That is why I chose to do the course.

What role do you think freedom of expression and freedom of the press play in a society, especially in the context of Africa?

Sanon: Freedom of expression and freedom of the press play a very important role in modern society because it allows citizens to express themselves in all fields and gain information - and through these two freedoms, other rights may be applied. For example, health. Awareness campaigns in newspapers, on the radio, on television, and online make it feasible to reach as many people as possible - and to realize the right to health of citizens at the same time.

However, in the same way freedom of the press and freedom of expression can have a positive influence on citizens, they can also have a devastating effect on a population. I watched a film on the Rwandan genocide online, and it seems as though the press played a role in this genocide through hate messages broadcasted on the radio - even in the countryside.

Beng: Freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in many legal documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and at the regional, sub-regional, and even national level because there are laws committed to the freedom of expression here in Cameroon. This is important for African societies because, since the accession of African countries to independence, we have had to sign many international conventions – and therefore we should remain true to our word. When a country, regardless of whether it is in the West or Africa, decides to sign and ratify a convention in a legal instrument, it must respect the conventions in question. It is a right that allows journalists to do their job with greater security, because the right to access to information is fundamental since whoever holds information holds power. Therefore, it is important for individuals and society in general to be informed about what is happening both inside and outside a country – this is what makes a country work.

What future do you see for freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Africa? How do you think this can support sustainable development?

Sanon: The right to freedom of expression has changed a lot in the world, as well as in Africa. The right to freedom of expression is a relatively new right if I refer to the various legal texts and the cases cited in the courts.

Many efforts have been made by African states to respect and enforce this right. There are still serious violations of the right to freedom of expression and the press in some African countries and in other continents. Like other rights, the right to freedom of expression will one day be effectively enforced. There is still a long way to go for awareness and the willingness of states.

Beng: I prefer to be positive, and I think that there are so many clashes in Africa lately because the African people are becoming aware of the fact that international legislation exists and that most of our African states are states of law – and therefore laws ratified in the national conventions have to be respected.  People are waking up to the idea that fundamental rights cannot be taken away and should not be restricted. And, of course, I doubt every nation will respect these fundamental human rights without a battle. Freedom of expression must therefore be granted at all levels of society.

How do you think this course will help your work as a justice professional in Africa?

Sanon: This training made me understand the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the framework of human rights. As a magistrate, this training will better inform my decision-making on certain issues such as defamation cases. I now have a new perspective on the application of the right to freedom of expression.

Beng: The course has given me a detailed understanding of freedom of expression, its framework and the legal instruments supporting this freedom. It has also given me a plethora of material that will allow me to be able to defend my client when I have to deal with this type of issue, knowing both national and international jurisprudence. I realized that others in the forum share these views. I think I am better equipped now if I were called to defend, say, a journalist arrested in Cameroon simply because they exercised their right to express themselves freely. For that reason, I am very grateful to the people who organized this training.

The massive open online course (MOOC), entitled ‘International and African Standards on Freedom of Expression’, follows the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between UNESCO and the African Court on 14 August 2018. The two organizations continue their commitment to building the capacity of judicial actors across the African continent on issues relating to freedom of expression.

This online course is implemented by the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme de Lille, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherche sur le Droit International Général et les Droits de l'Homme (CERDIH) of Burkina Faso. It is part of the wider framework of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Question of Impunity, approved in 2012 by the United Nations Chief Executives Board and recognized by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/163 on 18 December 2013.


Related publications:

Read UNESCO’s Legal standards on freedom of expression: toolkit for the judiciary in Africa

This project received support from Switzerland and Norway through the Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists.