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Criminal Defamation Laws Impeding Investigative Journalism—PEN International

March 9, 2018-The continued presence of criminal defamation and insult laws in some parts of Africa has contributed to decreasing levels of investigative journalism as whistle-blowers and journalists fear arrests and persecution, PEN International has said.

PEN International, an organisation which works to connect the international community of writers, is on a campaign to lobby African countries to decriminalise criminal defamation and repeal insult laws. The institution held a meeting with the Justice and Human Rights Committee of the Pan African Parliament on 7 March 2018.

PEN International also presented an updated resolution based on the Midrand Declaration and the campaign ‘Press Freedom for Development and Governance: Need for Reform.’

In an interview, Director of International Programmes at PEN International Romana Cacchioli said criminal defamation and insult laws were holding investigative journalism back.

“The impact of these laws are having a chilling effect in relation to investigative journalism in Africa, particularly where duty holders are being held to account. African public is not getting a full sense of the true facts of what is happening in their countries or the continent for that matter,” she said.

The state of criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa is such that while these exist in the statutes, they are used to threaten citizens. In other cases, the prosecution is never concluded; leaving the charged individuals to live in suspense, PEN International told the committee.

The organisation acknowledges that there have been positive steps taken by African states. “Countries like Ghana and Rwanda have recently decriminalised and some countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe are on the way towards decriminalisation,” Cacchioli said.

President of the Uganda PEN International Dr. Danson Kahyana said civil means of dealing with defamation remained the best way to deal with unprofessional conduct and abuse of freedom of expression. “We urge governments through PAP, to help build more vibrant media councils and enact civil defamation laws through which challenges can be handled.”

On the other hand, the Chairperson of the Justice and Human Rights Committee Hon. Ignatienne Kirarukundo said while some countries made room for civil arbitration to avoid criminal defamation, citizens should not take it for granted to abuse others in the name of freedom of expression.

“At the same time, if we close the door for the media, we are closing it for the whole population, so there is a need to decriminalise everything but also find a balance between absolute freedom and irresponsible behaviour,” she said.

PEN International has since commended PAP for being supportive of freedom of expression as demonstrated through the Midrand Resolution of 2012 and seeks to improve implementation by Members of Parliament in their national Parliaments. The meeting followed a workshop held for PAP Members during the 2017 August Committee Sittings.

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