ECOWAS Court Gives Judgment On Press Council Inconsistency With Human Rights Law

By Bukar Bolori

The ECOWAS Court of Justice has delivered its judgment in a case brought by two Nigerian journalists alleging the Nigerian Press Council Act of 1992 was discriminatory and violated their right to freedom of expression.

In its judgment delivered by Hon Justice Dupe Atoki, Judge Rapporteur, the Court declared that Sections 19 (1)(a), 27 and 37 of the Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act failed to recognize public interest media including rights of online and citizen journalists thereby violating Article 9 (1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and Article 8 (1) and 10 (2) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The Court therefore ordered the government of Nigeria to amend these contested Sections to align with international practices that promote free, pluralistic and professional journalism.

It however dismissed other claims which were not substantiated.

The case with suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/31/21 was filed on 14 June 2021 by lawyers representing the Applicants – Mr Isaac Olamikan and Mrs Edoghogho Ugberease – online and citizen journalists who practise journalism for the promotion of freedom of expression, opinion, and access to information.

In the application, they claimed that Sections 19(1)a, 27 and 37 of the Nigeria Press Council Act of 1992 requiring journalists to be at least 18 years and accredited by the NPC, 25 years to be an editor with working experience in reputable media organization or news agency and registered with the Nigeria Union of Journalists, discriminated against them.

The Applicants’ lawyers led by Mr President Aigbokhan argued that these Sections failed to recognise public interest media such as the rights of online and citizen journalists and were therefore discriminatory and violated their right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under Articles 2 and 9(1) of the ACHPR, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), Articles 2, 10 and 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 8 (1) and 10 (2) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa; and breached the State’s obligation under the ECOWAS Treaty among other cited texts.

“For example, Section 37 of the Press Council Act, puts the minimum age to practice journalism as 18 years of age, while to be qualified as an editor, requires a minimum of 25 years of age. Sections 19(a) and 27 of the Act imposes educational qualifications and compulsory courses of attendance and training before a person can be recognized and allowed to practice as a journalist,” the judgment stated.

They also submitted that they were arrested separately at different locations while investigating and gathering information for their work, and that their arrest and detention were unlawful and violated their rights.

The Applicants asked the Court to order the Respondent to amend the contested Sections of the NPC Act to align with international practice and pay 1,000,000 (one million) USD as damages.

On their part, the Respondent’s lawyers Mrs Maimuna Lami Shiru and Mrs B.J. Oladipo told the Court that ‘journalism is a sensitive profession requiring mastery as well as regulation to prevent negative effect, adding that rights to information and freedom of expression are not absolute.

’The Respondent denied arresting and detaining the Applicants unlawfully, stating that the first Applicant was arrested because his action had national security implications while the second Applicant operated illegally.

They added that, in the same way as other professional bodies, there were criteria for registration and membership as journalists, and urged the Court to dismiss the case describing it as frivolous, baseless and an abuse of court process.

In its analysis, the Court determined if the matter was within its mandate, if it was admissible and if the Sections of the NPC Act were discriminatory and violated the right to freedom of expression of the Applicants.

Relying on its rules of procedure and jurisprudence, the Court held the matter was within its jurisdiction and the case was admissible.

On the alleged violation of Article 2 of ACHPR the Court noted that the Applicants did not substantiate on how they were treated differently in an identical or similar situation.

Consequently, it held that their rights to freedom from discrimination under Article 2 of ACHPR has not been violated.While on the alleged violation of Article 9 (freedom of expression), the Court noted that Section 19(1) and Section 27 of the Press Act imposing minimum educational requirement, age limit and registration, were restrictive and interfered with the right to freedom of expression, and therefore violated Article 9 (2).

In reaching its decision, the Court also noted the impact of technology in the evolving media space with the advent of citizen journalists, influencers and content creators who share news, commentary, and analysis on social issues.

Though not qualified in traditional sense, they contributed to shaping public opinion.

It drew inspiration from young activists notably Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg who in their teens integrated online media in their advocacy and have attained world recognition through a free and unrestricted opportunity to gather information and express opinion.

Regarding the Applicants’ claim of unlawful arrest and detention, the Court noted that the Applicants did not prove their arrest was unlawful.

Consequently, the Court dismissed their claims of unlawful arrest and request for compensation.

Both parties were ordered to bear their costs of litigation.Also on the bench were Hon Justices Edward Amoako Asante (presiding) and Sengu M. Koroma (Member).

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