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Economic Community of West African States: Uniform Framework on Freedom of Expression, Information Considered

(Mar. 21, 2012) From March 5-9, 2012, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a meeting of its Technical Committee on Legal and Judicial Affairs and the Ministers of Justice of the Member States, in Abuja, Nigeria. (Schedule of Meetings, 2012, ECOWAS website (last visited Mar. 19, 2012).) ECOWAS was founded in 1975 and is designed to promote economic integration among 15 West African nations. (ECOWAS in Brief, ECOWAS Commission website (last visited Mar. 19, 2012).)

Among the documents reviewed at the meeting was the Draft Supplementary Act on a Uniform Legal Framework on Freedom of Expression and Right to Information in West Africa. (Supplementary Act A/SA…/6/10 on a Uniform Legal Framework on Freedom of Expression and Right to Information in West Africa (Jan. 2010) [Draft Act], FREEDOMINFO.ORG.) It establishes the right to freedom of expression in article 1, paragraph 1, which states:

Freedom of expression and information, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, either orally or in writing or in print, in the form of art or signs and symbols and through other forms of media of mass communication and new information and communication technologies across all frontiers without limitation is a fundamental human and inalienable right to which all persons are entitled and is an indispensable condition for democracy. (Id.)

Article 1 goes on to state in paragraph 7 that:

Any restriction on freedom of expression shall:

a) be provided by law;

b) correspond to a necessary and legitimate purpose in protecting the rights of the individual or the public interest sufficiently pressing to outweigh the public interest in, and fundamental importance of, freedom of expression in a democracy;

c) be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued or sought to be protected. (Id.)

Three articles of the Draft Act address access to information: article 7, which guarantees the right to information as a fundamental human right, though exceptions are noted; article 8, on the establishment of an enforcement body to monitor implementation of the right of access to information, to educate the public and train officials in charge of providing information, and to hear appeals when requests for information are denied; and article 9, on sanctions for those who deny proper access to information. (Id.; Work on African Model Laws Still Underway, FREEDOMINFO.ORG (Mar. 9, 2012).)

Mohammed Bello Adoke, Nigeria's Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, supported the uniform framework, stating that “[t]here is no doubt that this (Draft Act) would greatly enhance the right to information and freedom of expression which are fundamental human rights issues enshrined in our respective National Constitutions and varied International Treaties and Conventions.” (Press Release, No. 043/2012, ECOWAS, Minister Tasks ECOWAS Legal Experts on Freedom of Expression, Tenders Code (Mar. 7, 2012).) The Draft Act, by establishing standards, would encourage ECOWAS Member States that have restrictive legislation to make reforms. (Id.)

The Draft Act began as a project of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). (Emmanuel K. Dogbevi, Nigeria Calls for ECOWAS Freedom of Expression, Right to Information Legal Framework, GHANA BUSINESS NEWS (Mar. 13, 2012).) The Foundation, which is based in Accra, Ghana, states that its mission is “to promote, defend, protect, consolidate, and expand the fundamental freedoms of media and expression of citizens, communication professionals and organisations and human rights defenders in West Africa.” (Our Mission, MFWA website (last visited Mar. 19, 2012).)

Following extensive review, the Draft Act had been approved by the ministers of information and communication of the ECOWAS member states. (Dogbevi, supra.)

A draft Tenders Code was also reviewed at the Technical Committee meeting. That new Code is designed to update a 1999 document covering procurement procedures for government institutions. (Press Release, supra.)