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Free expression and law in 2011

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 5 April 2012 - In this brief, ARTICLE 19 outlines the major legal developments relating to freedom of expression and information in West and Central African countries in 2011. These include new laws, regulations, policies and jurisprudence.

Overview
There were signs of both positive and negative trends across the region in 2011.

POSITIVE TRENDS

* Mauritania adopted a new law removing custodial sentences for press offences.

* Mauritania also showed signs of moving towards a more liberalised broadcasting market.

* An increasing number of West African states seem set to adopt Freedom of Information laws. Nigeria is leading the way with the adoption of a Freedom of Information Act in June.

* There is also a noticeable trend towards the adoption of new Information and Communication Technology laws, which generally aim at providing universal access to the internet in West Africa.

* In October 2011, the Contracting Parties of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a Supplementary Act on a Uniform Framework on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information in West Africa. The Act provides strong safeguards for the protection of freedom of expression in West Africa, notably by decriminalising press offences such as: criminal defamation, insult laws, sedition laws, and false news laws.

* In December 2011, a conference of stakeholders from West Africa adopted the Bamako Declaration and its Strategic Framework on Impunity, Justice and Human Rights. The stakeholders included a wide variety of people from the sub-region. As well as Ministers of Justice, there were also representatives from: Supreme Courts, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, sub-regional and regional organisations, political missions and agencies, and civil society. The resulting Declaration and Strategic Framework provide concrete and innovative recommendations for preventing conflicts by strengthening good governance and the rule of law.

* In April 2011, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights adopted the Resolution on the Safety of Journalists and Media Practitioners in Africa. The Resolution calls on states that are party to the African Charter and other concerned authorities to: fulfil their obligation to prevent and investigate all crimes allegedly committed against journalists and media practitioners; and bring the perpetrators to justice.

NEGATIVE TRENDS

* Decriminalisation of press offences is still relatively rare in West African countries.

* The Information and Communication Technology laws or bills currently being debated in some West African countries tend to grant extensive powers to regulate the internet and broadcasting.

* Togo adopted a restrictive law on the exercise of freedom of assembly.

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