Uphold free expression, review legislation that limits environmental protection – ECOWAS to Member States

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The Head of Democracy and Good Governance Division, Directorate of Political Affairs of the ECOWAS Commission, Mr Ebenezer Aseidu, has called on ECOWAS Member States to respect the right to freedom of expression and access to information.

Mr Asiedu believes upholding these rights will ensure that journalists and activists can mobilise and report on environmental preservation and sustainability issues. He explained that environmental journalism and activism can only thrive when the civic space is expanded through the respect and protection of freedom of expression and access to information rights.

“These [freedom of expression and access to information] are the minimum enabling conditions for journalists and activists to thrive in their efforts to provide accurate information and a platform for public discourse on the environmental and climate disruption confronting the world, including our sub-region.”

He made this call at a webinar organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) on Friday, May 31, 2024. The webinar was held on the theme: Legal Barriers to Environmental Journalism and Activism in West Africa.

The MFWA organised the virtual discussion to throw more light on the legal hurdles journalists and activists who highlight the activities of environmental destructors face in the sub-region.

Mr Asiedu also called on ECOWAS Member States to review laws that aid individuals and companies whose activities destroy the environment.

“Indeed, if there are any laws that pose as barriers to environmental protection then those laws, I must say, are anachronistic. They are against time and need to be relooked at,” he said.

He assured that the ECOWAS Commission will continue to provide the needed policy and strategic leadership for the realization of the objectives of the ECOWAS Environmental Action Plan (EAP) 2020-2026 while enjoining Member States to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression to ensure that all ECOWAS citizens collaborate to make the EAP achievable.

Issues raised at the Webinar

Speakers and panelists on the webinar took turns to throw more light on how interests behind unsustainable environmental practices use legal and other means to harass, intimidate and threaten them into silence.

Highlighting the nature and forms of attacks against environmental journalists and activists, an activist in exile, Mobbo Dure, stated that they face “various types of risks including reprisals, threats, loss of employment, legal repercussions, and in the most extreme cases, physical harm and even death.”

A Nigerian environmental journalist, Luka Binniyat, who was on the panel corroborated Dure’s submission with his personal experiences:

“I am a typical example of a persecuted environmental journalist – I have been taken before five judges, I have been in prison three times, I currently have two cases, one with the State court and one with the Federal High Court, all that have to do with [my report on] conflicts between herders and farmers in the North East of Nigeria.”

Luka’s case revives memories of a similar prosecution of Noah Dameh, who was a journalist in a salt mining community in Ghana. Charged with the “publication of false news” after his relentless reporting on a controversial lease of the Songhor Lagoon to a single private entity, Noah was arrested, detained and made to spend the best part of his time going to court. The journalist died in the course of his prolonged prosecution in September 2023.

Another issue that was highlighted is how broad provisions of some laws are exploited to persecute environmental journalists and activists into silence. For instance, Project Manager at Advocates for Community Alternatives (ACA), Osei Nimako, indicated that in Ghana, sometimes, “journalists who report on environmental destruction are arrested and charged with causing fear and panic.”

“Nigeria’s cyber security law, it’s as if the law is meant to gag us journalists, there’s no way they will not get you if they want to get you under this law,” Luka Binniyat corroborated.

Corruption in the judiciary was also highlighted as a huge impediment. This was raised as a major frustration for environmental journalists, CSOs and activists in trying to seek justice through the legal processes in the respective countries in West Africa. A particularly worrying account about a magistrate demanding money in order to file a complaint was narrated by the Legal Director at ACA, Lalla Ture,

“There have been cases of bribery so that judges can review rulings or cases of judges demanding money from plaintiffs to register the complaint.  We’ve had cases where judges have tried to delay rulings. In Liberia, we faced a case where the magistrate asked for money just to accept our complaints and register them.”

Some governments in the region were also cited for being complicit in how issues about environmental reporting and whistleblowing are handled to the disadvantage of journalists and activists.

“In doing our work as environmental activists, we notice that the State protects the culprits of environmental destruction, better than the victims. Government machinery is in bed with the companies that cause destruction,” said Osei Nimako, Project Manager, ACA.

Mr Nimako added that the state media in Ghana do not publish stories that indict government agencies regarding their failures in environmental protection. This, he said, is sometimes due to intimidation. The result is that the public is denied critical knowledge about how the environment is being destroyed by corporations.

Concerns were are also raised about how state security officers get compromised to protect and oversee some of the destructive activities that are carried out in the affected communities and how sometimes, their mere presence silences community members. The slow pace of legal processes which sometimes delays the publication of stories or getting compensation for communities affected by harmful environmental activities was also highlighted.

Other recommendations made at the Webinar

On the back of the issues raised, the speakers at the webinar recommended that there should be more support for journalists, civil society groups and organisations and individual activists who brave the odds to report and raise alarm about environmental degradation and unhealthy agricultural practices. Specific calls were made to media organisations and media associations to stand by and financially support their journalists when they are legally harassed with arrests, detention and prosecution.

They also called on governments, state institutions, security agencies and the judiciary to uphold the rule of law by enforcing environmental protection, freedom of expression and access to information laws so that activists and journalists can go about their duties without ‘unnecessary’ legal impediments. They recommended that the laws should be seen to be protecting journalists and activists who promote sustainable environmental practices and not the wealthy and powerful corporations and politically aligned people who destroy the environment. State-owned media were also encouraged to guard against state influences so they can accurately report and name the powerful interests degrading the environment.

About the Webinar

The webinar was organised by the MFWA under a project titled Promoting Agroecology and Environmental Sustainability; and Enhancing Freedom of Expression in West Africa and as part of activities to mark World Environment Day. It was organised with funding support from The 11th Hour Project.

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