Young East African lawyers trained in defending media freedom

August 5, 2015 11:17 am

If journalists are the frontline in the battle to protect media freedom, then the last line of defense is perhaps the idealistic lawyers with the smarts to challenge restrictions by taking litigation beyond national courts through to regional and international structures.

In early July, KAS Media Africa partnered with the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) to host a four-day “Litigation Surgery” workshop for young East African lawyers. The focus was on building practical litigation skills and legal strategies with an emphasis on using international human rights mechanisms for the protection of media freedom.

The nine young lawyers in attendance – from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi – were selected from applications which included the outline of a case they have been working on in their national jurisdiction and which they would like to take to international level. While some cases challenge the constitutionality of new media regulation legislation, others worryingly reveal journalists facing criminal defamation charges, harassment, detention, torture and in one case a murder at the hands of police officers.

According to Peter Noorlander, CEO of MLDI, the objectives of the “litigation surgery” were twofold: to build the litigation skills of lawyers in the region working on media defence cases focusing on international litigation and to develop a pool of capable and committed lawyers with whom MLDI can work on cases.

There was a particular emphasis on the use of international human rights mechanisms, which for East Africa includes the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the East African Court of Justice, with the African Court and EACJ being able to issue binding decisions.

Notably, MLDI has hands-on expertise in bringing cases at all of these regional mechanisms and won the first ever free speech case at the African Court of Human Rights late last year – Konate vs Burkina Faso.

The workshop consisted of training lectures covering international and comparative freedom of expression law and regional mechanisms before moving on to practical litigation skills, case strategy and presentation of legal arguments. In the final sessions lawyers worked in groups on their case studies and gave feedback presentations on their litigation plans.

After the workshop the young lawyers set up a google group to keep in contact and share progress with their cases. MLDI will also continue to mentor and support the lawyers through the early stages of their cases and if necessary, where larger issues are at stake a case could be litigated in partnership with MLDI.