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Free expression legal framework adopted by ECOWAS information ministers

(MFWA/IFEX) - 24 January 2011 - A legal framework to expand the frontiers of free expression and access to Information has been adopted in West Africa by Ministers of Information of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after a two-day meeting which ended on January 15, 2011 in Abuja, Nigeria.

The proposed Act, "The Supplementary Act for a Uniform Legal Framework on Freedom of Expression and Right to Information", now awaits the approval of the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government.

The legal framework, which is the brainchild of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), was first discussed by civil society organisations in 2009, followed by a review of ECOWAS experts in communication and information.

The Act has sixteen clauses, from the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression and independence of the media to the rights of Access to Information. Clause 1 of Article 1 defines rights to freedom of expression to include the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas. It goes further to gives special protection to community citizens' speech on public affairs and political expression.

However, two main provisions on decriminalizing and abolishing the offences of criminal libel, sedition, false news and insulting/defaming the President, and the provision proscribing the bringing of criminal action to protect the reputation of the state, were removed by the ministers.

Notwithstanding this, the MFWA considers the adoption of the Act by the ECOWAS ministers as historic because it will improve the media environment and would go a long way in ensuring the rights of community citizens' will be respected.

The MFWA will continue to advocate for the repeal and proscription of such offences that restrict the space for free expression within the region.

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