PEOPLE IN THE NEWS : Media role crucial, says African rights court new leader

Newly elected President of the Arusha-based African Court on Human and People’s Rights Justice Sylvain Ore poses in a past event. PHOTO | FILE

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  • “I’m a firm believer of enormous important role journalists and media houses play in the protection of human rights,” he said early this week shortly after he was elected to succeed Judge Augustino Ramadhani of Tanzania as the President of the Court.

Arusha. He is soft-spoken but firm in his words.

This is Justice Sylvain Ore, the newly-elected President of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (AfCHPR), a judicial organ of the African Union based in Arusha.

“I’m a firm believer of enormous important role journalists and media houses play in the protection of human rights,” he said early this week shortly after he was elected to succeed Judge Augustino Ramadhani of Tanzania as the President of the Court.

The Cote d’Ivoire-born lawyer said in his nearly two decades in the bar, he had vivid memories of how the media have exposed human rights violations and offered an arena for different voices to be heard in public discourse.

However, he noted that although the media is referred as the Fourth Estate, its power can be misused or rather abused to the extent that the very functioning of democracy is threatened or undermined.

It also happens that the media can unnecessarily or unfairly abuse the privacy and integrity of ordinary people through sheer carelessness and sensationalism “and thereby cause considerable damage to individuals for no good purpose at all.”

Justice Ore noted that freedom of expression was an absolute basic human right, quoting Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights which clearly states that every individual shall have the right to receive information.

“The people of Africa need to be informed about their human rights enshrined in their constitutions and how to achieve these rights. This should never be misconceived as rebellious or counter-productive,” he said when speaking to senior journalists from various corners of the continent.

However, he stressed that much as freedom of expression was a human right, it was not without limits and, therefore, underscored ethical journalism which, he says, can contribute “to a better society through genuine professionalism.”

Justice Ore took oath as the fourth President of the African Court since the judicial body started operations in 2007 after relocating its headquarters to Arusha.

His predecessors were Judge Ramadhani (2014 - 2016), Lady Justice Sophia A. B. Akuffo from Ghana (2012 - 2014) and Judge Gerard Niyungeko (Burundi), the founder President who was in office from 2007 to 2012.

He was sworn in last Monday and granted an interview to The Citizen on Sunday the following day during which he laid down his priority areas and strategies to make the Court more known across the African continent unlike the case is now.

But he was categorical that one of the tools to promote the institution through awareness creation was the media. “We will use the media to inform the public,” he pointed out as he discussed the task ahead of him.

Incidentally, it did not take even a week to show his seriousness in using the media. Three days after being sworn in, he organised a seminar bringing together editors and senior journalists from four zones of Africa; southern, central, west and north kicked off at Mt Meru Hotel.

It was aimed to acquaint them on the role and functions of the Court and the human rights issues in Africa in general. He used the occasion to reaffirm his commitment to work closely with the media.

But he remarked that the media was one tool to reach out the policy makers in Africa and beyond on the role of the Court. The other will be travelling across the vast continent to physically meet state leaders and consumers of court services.

Although sensitisation seminars would continue, this time around they would not be confined to the governments, some of which have been blamed for shunning the Court for reasons believed to border on their governance records.

“We will also focus on parliamentarians, bar associations, human rights groups, lawyers and, of course, the media being consumers of the court proceedings,” he told The Citizen on Sunday in an interview.

He played down perception that the African Court was being shunned by many countries and, therefore, not fully supported by the very countries which signed a protocol for its establishment in the late 1990s.

“Do not emphasise too much on the reluctance of the African states to ratify on the Protocol (that established the Court). In the last six years alone, we have received 126 applications against only one between 2002 and 2010,” he said.

The Court was established by the AU through a Protocol signed way back in 1998 when it was known as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to determine cases pertaining to human and peoples’ rights.

Todate, only about 30 of the 54 AU member states have ratified the Protocol while only seven have signed a Declaration allowing their citizens and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to file applications before the Court. There had been feelings that the reluctance to accede to the Protocol which came into force in 2004 was due to bad human rights record among a section of AU member states and general lack of awareness on the judicial organ.

Tanzania signed the said Protocol on February 10, 2006. The host country equally deposited on March 10, 2010, a declaration accepting the competence of the Court to receive cases from individuals and NGOs.

Justice Ore, who was first elected a Judge at the Arusha-based Court in 2010, noted that although nearly a half of the AU member states have not ratified the Protocol, there is still hope they will ratify the document and use the services of the Court.

“Why some countries are reluctant there is no answer to that question. There is very little we can do save for meeting Heads of State during the annual summits of AU summits,” he explained.

On the withdrawal of Rwanda from the Declaration allowing its citizens and NGOs to file application before the Court, Justice Ore said the country’s withdrawal will come into effect one year after pulling out.

“For now Rwandese can still file their cases until the elapse of one year since it ditched the Declaration early this year,” he said. He could not say if they were reaching out the Rwandan authorities on the matter.

The decision led to halting on hearing on a case in which the jailed opposition politician Victorie Ingabire who challenged her country’s Judiciary on March 4 after Rwanda withdrew its signature to the legal instrument which allows individuals and NGOs to file a case at AfCHPR.

Information on Rwanda’s apparent ditching of the legal instrument was communicated to AfCHPR only a few days before hearing of the high profile case begins at its chambers in Arusha.

Ms Ingabire, who vied for presidency during the 2010 General Election in Rwanda after returning home from exile, contends that her fundamental rights as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights had been violated. She was accused of terrorism-related charges.