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West Africa: Protection of Civic Space for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 28 November 2013
Cite as Article 19, West Africa: Protection of Civic Space for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders, 28 November 2013, available at: [accessed 17 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Regional Forum on the "Protection of Civic Space for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders" was held in Bamako from 20 to 21 November 2013. The forum's principal objective was to reflect on the way and means of implementing efficient mechanisms to guarantee freedom of expression for journalists and human rights defenders, and more broadly, for all citizens.

The forum was held in Mali, upon ARTICLE 19's initiative, in partnership with the Capacity Building Programme for the West African Journalists Association (PRC/UJAO), the Institute for Democracy and Media Studies (IDEM), and the Malian Press House (Maison de la Presse).

During the two-day forum, journalists, civil society stakeholders, legal practitioners and experts debated matters relating to the protection of civic space for journalists and human rights defenders, in the presence of representatives of the Malian government and other international institutions, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR).

The forum was organised at a critical moment in Mali's political history where "the state's authority is at its lowest", despite huge efforts made by the country's leaders to rebuild the state and restore its authority, following the crisis brought about by the 2012 coup d'état.

These are extremely difficult times for journalists and human rights defenders as they face many obstacles in exercising their profession and carrying out their activities in public space.

The debates focussed on access to information, access to public space, freedom of opinion and expression. They also looked at the level of daily protection citizens have, with particular reference to journalists and human rights defenders who are considered essential pillars of a democracy and rule of law.

Participants debated issues including the collaboration between the media and civil society, the necessary dialogue between the state and other key players in public life, and women and young people's role in society. During the sessions , participants also broadly discussed strategies that could be implemented for young people, women and media professionals.

The aim of these sessions was to reflect on practices that would allow stakeholders to extend and secure a space which would allow them to freely express their ideas and opinions, whilst supporting citizen engagement, and disseminating democratic messages and inclusive participation.

The same issues were further discussed during the regional forum debates and participants reached a near-unanimous conclusion: journalists and human rights defenders are not sufficiently protected, not only in Mali, a country in crisis, but in countries throughout the West Africa subregion. This situation calls upon citizens, states, West African civil societies, and subregional and continental organisations such as ECOWAS and the African Union to act.

The participants agreed that access to information was a fundamental human right, which becomes even more crucial during periods of conflict, and crisis as populations become "manipulated and misinformed".

The participants also noted that it was evident that states have double obligations: the duty to respect, that is to say, to not violate freedom of expression, and the duty to protect it by creating an environment favourable to the diverse expression of ideas and opinions.

On the basis of these texts and the debates which took place during the two day forum, the participants unanimously:

Condemn all threats and forms of abuses of power against journalists, human rights defenders and women;

Deplore the lack of progress and transparency in the investigations of crimes and attacks against journalists, since the start of the Malian conflict, and the risk that these crimes remain unpunished.

Furthermore, the participants call upon:

The Malian Authorities:

To ensure safety for journalists and human rights defenders carrying out their profession, throughout the whole Malian territory, including the northern regions;

To put in place mechanisms to prevent violence against journalists and human rights defenders, and put an end to the climate of impunity, and re-establish rule of law throughout the entire Malian territory;

To create the right conditions to allow young people and women to access information and public spaces so that they can freely express themselves, and participate in the management of public affairs without fear;

To undertake reforms, by introducing laws guaranteeing access of information for all and the decriminalisation of press offences;

To reinforce media support mechanisms.

International institutions and subregional African institutions, notably the ECOWAS, the AU and the UN:

To prioritise the protection and safety of journalists and human rights defenders, alongside access to information for all, especially concerning the country's reconciliation and stabilisation process;

To put in place more binding legal mechanisms in relation to states and stakeholders who could be responsible for serious violations of freedom of press in order to end impunity.

African civil society organisations:

To include in their agenda the fight for access to information, freedom of expression, and the protection of journalists and human rights defenders;

To support the establishement of national and regional protection mechanisms for journalists and human rights defenders, to ensure their safety and to allow them to freely carry out their professional and campaign activities.

Journalists in Mali and the subregion:

To continue to mobilise, collectively showing their solidarity, and put pressure on states and different stakeholders so that their safety be guaranteed everywhere at all times;

To adhere to ethical principles and codes of conduct, as recommended by professional media organisations, and to place themselves at an equidistance from different stakeholders and at the sole service of citizens in matters of public interest;

To incorporate protection and security measures in their writing to prepare for all eventualities;

To show more rigour and professionalism in dealing with information on the conflict in order to contribute to the consolidation of peace and national reconciliation;

To reject the influence of politicians and refuse to be a sounding board for political groups;

To set up warning and alert mechanisms on a national and subregional level, able to react to all threats to the exercise of their profession.

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