Summary: African Court delivers landmark ruling on criminal libel

9th December 2014: In its first judgment on a free speech issue, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has ruled that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression while criminal defamation laws should only be used in restricted circumstances.

The court handed down judgment today in the case of Konaté v Burkina Faso. The case was brought on behalf of Lohé Issa Konaté, a journalist from Burkina Faso who was jailed for a year for newspaper reports in which he accused a prosecutor of corruption. The judgment is binding on African Union member States, where imprisonment for libel is common, and will have major implications for media freedom across the continent.

Mr Konaté, who edits the newspaper L’Ouragan (’the Hurricane’), was represented by SRT grantee Media Legal Defence Initiative, whose legal team included John Jones QC and Steven Finizio. They argued that the Court should rule not only that Mr Konaté’s rights were violated – he had excellent sources for his report, which he was prevented from bringing before the local courts – but that no journalist should ever be imprisoned for defamation. This argument was supported by a coalition of interveners, including SRT grantee the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), who stated that defamation disputes should be handled under civil law and that criminal prosecutions should be brought only in matters such as incitement to violence.

Nani Jansen of MLDI said, “This is a very good outcome. The African Court has aligned itself with consistent case law from the European and Inter-American Court by declaring that criminal defamation can only be resorted to under restricted circumstances. Justice has been done for our client, Mr Konaté. We are very pleased with the result.”

Full press release from MLDI:

Press release from SALC:

Return to grantee stories