A judge of the Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS has canvassed the ‘proper implementation’ of existing laws that guarantee access to information in some ECOWAS Member States in order to enhance transparency in governance, promote citizen participation, deter corruption and improve accountability of public officials.

Only eight of the 15 Member States of ECOWAS- Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo, have freedom of access to information laws.

Justice Micah Wilkins Wright urged Member States without such legislation and others willing to review theirs to draw inspiration from the Model Law for Africa on Access to Information, prepared under the guidance of the African Union Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.

In the paper delivered at a UNESCO-organised seminar in Arusha, Tanzania, Justice Wright, who is the Vice President of the Court, argued that freedom of expression provisions should not be misconstrued as applicable only to media professionals even though the nature of their work requires they enjoy such latitude for effectiveness.

He characterised the job of the journalist as essential to the realization of the public right to information, while access to reliable and sound information contribute to the ‘edification of a democratic society, the practice of good governance and guarantee the rule of law.’

Despite these benefits, the Judge said journalists continue to be maltreated because of their profession and the exercise of this right manifested in assassinations, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, censorship, layoffs, termination, disqualifications, tax penalties and punitive damages, among others.

Moreover, he said that crimes and offenses against journalists are also rarely elucidated in 7 per cent of the cases; investigations are rare and those conducted are rarely conclusive, providing an atmosphere for impunity, arrogance and contempt for journalists to thrive.

Citing data from UNESCO, the Vice President said that during the last decade (2006-2015), more than 700 journalists were killed worldwide, 103 of them from Africa with only a ten per cent conviction rate for those charged with their murder.

While acknowledging the validity of the argument for the protection state secrets, Justice Wright urged states to create and maintain a conducive climate for the exercise of press freedom and a decent working environment for journalists. States, he added, have an obligation to ensure through effective law enforcement, that no crime committed against media professionals was allowed to go unpunished.

He reminded journalists in West Africa of the opportunity offered by the Court to obtain remedy for abuses against them within the ambit of its mandate and praised the ‘gigantic work accomplished by the Commission and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the protection of rights and freedoms in Africa.’

He also hailed the African Court on Human  and Peoples’ Rights for its landmark decision of December 5, 2014 in the case between  Lohé Issa Konaté against the government of Burkina Faso, describing it as ‘a great victory for the press and for all those in Africa who work to defend freedom of expression and press. ‘

‘By outlawing any imprisonment of journalists for libel, this case opens a new era of freedom and security for journalists throughout the continent,’ he noted.

The theme of the seminar, which was co-hosted with the African Union, was “Strengthening Judiciary System and African Courts to protect Safety of Journalists and end Impunity,” while the Vice President spoke on African Jurisprudence and International Standards,’ in his presentation on Saturday, 10th September 2016.

The seminar was jointly organised by UNESCO and the Arusha-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.