UNESCO supports updating of African Declaration on freedom of expression

Coinciding with the build-up to the 25th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, UNESCO took part last week in an expert meeting in Noukchott, Mauritania, to discuss updating a key African document on freedom of expression and access to information.

The document, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, was adopted in 2002 and built upon the earlier Windhoek Declaration, which in turn arose from a UNESCO conference in the Namibian capital in 1991, and which gave rise to World Press Freedom Day every 3 May.

The Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa was adopted in 2002 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The document serves as a reference point for assessing African countries’ records at the Commission. It has also been a strong reference point for jurisprudence in Africa.

In 2012, the Commission began a process to expand the Declaration to deal more extensively with access to information issues.  In 2016, the Commission adopted resolutions 350 and 362, which mandated a formal revision to be led by its Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which would also include internet issues.

At last week’s expert meeting, the Rapporteur – currently Lawrence Mute - elaborated on a consultative process to result in a technical document to present to the Commission for consideration.

UNESCO’s Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, took part in the meeting and pledged support for the consultative process and to help make expertise available for the envisaged revision.

“Amongst new issues that could be covered are matters like fair allocation of radio frequencies that includes wireless internet as well as broadcast sectors, as well as the role of online intermediaries, media online, and media and information literacy,” Berger told the meeting.

He also presented the findings of the recent UNESCO report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, highlighting how this was valuable context for considering the Declaration.

Issues of Internet shut-downs, blocking and filtering, arbitrary surveillance, protection of confidentiality of journalists sources in the digital age, and safety of journalists online are covered in the Report, he noted.

The experts meeting, which included participants from ten civil society and academic institutions, decided to form a reference group to work with Commissioner Mute going forward.

Various experts called for the revision to include issues of privacy, which have a strong bearing on freedom of expression in today’s world.

The discussions at the meeting were informed by the civil society African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which was noted in the African Commission’s resolution 362.  This Declaration was launched at the Internet Governance Forum in Turkey in 2014 where it was welcomed by UNESCO Deputy Director-General Getachew Engida.

That document calls on UNESCO to integrate its contents into Priority Africa strategies, and to develop “model laws protecting online freedom”.

While in Mauritania, UNESCO’s Director also met with Mme Awa Cheikh Sidiya Tandia, Minister for relations with parliament and civil society, to discuss the project of creating a Maison de la Presse in the country, and the Reseau des Femmes Journalists de Mauritanie, which has received support from UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.