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Human rights commissioner urges legislative reforms to ensure freedom of expression ahead of elections

(MISA/IFEX) - The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) special reporter on the right to freedom of expression, Commissioner Pansy Tlakula, has urged Kenya and Zimbabwe to uphold the right to freedom of expression and access to information, which she said are prerequisites for free, fair and credible elections. The two countries hold elections in 2008

Tlakula called on Zimbabwe and other states coming up with or amending existing legislation to bring their laws in line with freedom of expression standards in general and the Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa in particular. The Declaration was adopted by the ACHPR at its 32nd Ordinary Session in Banjul, The Gambia, in October 2002.

Addressing the 42nd Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, which is in session in the Congolese capital Brazzaville, Tlakula welcomed the adoption at the African Union Heads of State and Governments Summits, in Addis Ababa in January 2007, of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. However, she decried the fact that since its adoption, only 10 countries have signed the Charter, which needs an additional five signatories before it can come into force.

On broadcasting, Tlakula called on member states to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights that have not yet initiated broadcasting reforms to do so. She underscored Principle V (1) of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, which mentions that states shall encourage a diverse, independent private broadcasting sector and that a state monopoly over broadcasting is not compatible with the right to freedom of expression.

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) continues to enjoy a monopoly over the airwaves, as the government continues to dither on its pledges to amend the Broadcasting Services Act to facilitate the entry of private players into the broadcasting sector.

Tlakula stressed the need to reform state broadcasters into truly independent public service broadcasters accountable to the public through parliament and not the executive.

She said public broadcasters should be governed by boards that are protected against interference, particularly of a political or economic nature and that the editorial independence of public service broadcasters should be guaranteed. ZBC is managed by a board which is appointed by the Minister of Information and publicity.

Tlakula urged member states to come up with a public complaints system on issues of concern relating to broadcasting in line with the Declaration which also advocates for effective self-regulation as the best system of promoting high standards in the media. A self-regulatory board, the Media Council of Zimbabwe (MCZ) was launched in Zimbabwe on 8 June 2007.

The special rapporteur also urged member states to repeal all laws relating to criminal defamation. "I urge public figures to tolerate a greater degree of criticism," she said.

She welcomed the adoption of a Resolution for the adoption of an Additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on freedom of expression. This resolution was adopted at a CSO's AU Summit Conference on Strengthening Freedom of Expression in Africa which was held in Accra, Ghana in June.

"I wish to note that in countries which have been facing conflict situations, the media have often been under attack. I wish to reiterate the fact that attacks against journalists and destruction of media equipment are illegal under international humanitarian law which protects civilian persons and objects and therefore protects journalists. Therefore, parties involved in conflicts must remember at all times that media cannot be considered a legitimate target, unless it is being exploited to instigate grave breaches of humanitarian law," she ended.

The 42nd ordinary session of the Commission will run until 28 November 2007.

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