The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission), through the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Special Rapporteur), joins the international community in commemorating World Press Freedom Day, which is celebrated annually on 03 May.
World Press Freedom Day serves as a reminder to States of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is equally an opportunity to: assess the state of press freedom; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
This year, World Press Freedom Day is being commemorated under the theme “Journalism under Digital Siege.” This theme highlights emerging challenges on press freedom during the digital era, impacting journalism and freedom of expression alike.
Undoubtedly, the internet has emerged as an integral aspect of journalism. However, despite its numerous positive benefits, it is not without challenges. As lines increasingly blur between online and offline activities, attacks against journalists which were already occurring offline, are increasingly happening online as well.
Online violence has become a new frontline in journalism safety and is characterized by physical threats, sexual violence, online harassment and intimidation and verbal abuse.
While men journalists are also subject to abuse online, abuse directed against women journalists tends to be more severe. Reports show that women journalists are increasingly and persistently facing gender-based harassment and abuse online. The phenomenon can be defined as a combination of: often brutal, prolific online harassment and abuse, including targeted attacks that frequently involve threats of physical and/or sexual violence; digital privacy and security breaches that can expose identifying information and exacerbate offline safety threats facing women journalists and their sources; and coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech.
The impact of these online attacks can have a stifling impact on freedom of expression and press freedom, in addition to a direct impact on the safety and security of journalists.
In addition to these challenges, journalists and other media practitioners working in a number of African countries have been impacted by internet and social media shutdowns.
Disruptions and lack of access to the internet and social media violate the right to freedom of expression and access to information contrary to Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) and canhave serious consequences for press freedom, leaving journalists struggling to do their job effectively.
On this momentous occasion, it is only fitting to address another cause for concern, which is the exponential rise of surveillance throughout the continent. Of note are the multiple reports of States deploying surveillance technologies in their jurisdiction. The Special Rapporteur notes the steady rise in facial recognition tools that track and identify individuals unbeknown to them. Furthermore, a number of States have installed facial recognition-enabled surveillance cameras, that they claim to utilize for crime prevention. These systems are reportedly being utilized to keep track of, and remotely hack journalists and critiques of the State. These surveillance technologies access and process data without the consent of subjects and contravene the right to privacy.
As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, under its theme of Journalism under Digital Siege, we should use this occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the importance of press freedom, in addition to acknowledging the key role played by the media in ensuring full respect for the right to freedom of expression, promoting the free flow of information and ideas, assisting individuals in making informed decisions and facilitating and strengthening democracy.
The Special Rapporteur takes this opportunity to remind States Parties to the African Charterof their obligation to prevent, protect and remedy attacks against journalists, including protecting them from violence, threats of violence and various forms of harassment, as stated in Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (the Declaration). The Special Rapporteur reiterates the principle that “the same rights that people have offline should beprotected online, in accordance with international human rightslaw and standards, thereby affirming that the provisions in Principle 20,on the safety of journalists and other media practitioners, equally apply to online threats against journalists.
Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur urges States Parties to take all measures to guarantee, respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information through ensuring access to internet and social media services, including refraining from limiting and/or disrupting this access.
Lastly, the Special Rapporteur wishes to stress Principle 41 of the Declarationwhich provides that “States shall not engage in or condone acts of indiscriminate and untargeted collection, storage, analysis or sharing of a person’s communications,” and further that “States shall only engage in targeted communication surveillance that is authorized by law, that conforms with international human rights law and standards, and that is premised on specific and reasonable suspicion that a serious crime has been or is being carried out or for any other legitimate aim.”
On this World Press Freedom Day, the Special Rapporteur commends all journalists and other media practitioners who tirelessly work to speak truth to power, investigate allegations, contribute to and strengthen public debate, and provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives.
Commissioner Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo
Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa
Origin and Purpose;
Threats that Silence: Trends in the Safety of Journalists, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2021/2022, UNESCO (2021)
Report of the Secretary-General, The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, 04 August 2017, A/72/290
Investigating online harassment and abuse of women journalists, Article 19 (2020)
Online violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts, UNESCO (2020)
Digital Safety: Internet shutdowns, April 13, 2021, https://cpj.org/2021/04/digital-safety-internet-shutdowns/
Karen Allen, Future of facial recognition technology in Africa, Institute for Security Studies (2020) https://issafrica.org/iss-today/future-of-facial-recognition-technology-in-africa
Joe Parkinson, Nicholas Bariyo, and Josh Chin, Huawei technicians helped African Governments spy on political opponents (2020) https://www.wsj.com/articles/huawei-technicians-helped-african-governments-spy-on-political-opponents-11565793017
Preamble, Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (2019)