Protecting digital rights in Sierra Leone through the Universal Periodic Review

Discussing the state of freedom of expression and digital rights in Sierra Leone as it comes under review during the 38th session of the UPR.

Tomiwa Ilori, Uproar

September 1, 2021

Sierra Leone has ratified seven of the nine major international human rights treaties since its independence in 1962. In order to mainstream the various thematic aspects of these treaties into local contexts of member states party to them, including Sierra Leone, the UN has established various mechanisms including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

The UPR was established by the Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in 2006 to promote, support and expand human rights on the ground in UN member states. This is done through periodic reviews of reports supplied by both state and non-state actors to the UPR every four to five years. These reviews are carried out by the UPR working group who can be joined by other UN member states to give various recommendations to the State under review (SuR) through an outcome report. These recommendations are either accepted or noted by the SuR. The SuR then has the primary responsibility of implementing the accepted recommendations within the cycle they received them and the next cycle.

One of the major benefits of the UPR is that the SuR is able to have its human rights records and obligations assessed by other peer countries based on international human rights instruments that they are party to. Additionally, such assessment is carried out based on democratised information — information supplied by the SuR, special procedures with the UN architecture and civil society groups.

Perhaps, one of the most defining features of the UPR is that various thematic aspects of human rights are considered by the recommending states under their international human rights obligations. One of such thematic aspects are digital rights which are human rights that are impacted online through the use or non-use of technologies. For the purpose of assessment at the UPR, these rights have been divided into four major aspects including freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of information and censorship of content; right to equal access and opportunity; and right to data protection and privacy on the Internet.

Most countries, including Sierra Leone have gone through the UPR at least three times since 2011. On issues that relate to digital rights, Sierra Leone received its first recommendation on the right to freedom of expression in its first cycle in 2011 at the 18th session on 11 July 2011. There were 129 recommendations made by 41 countries. During that review, Netherlands recommended that Sierra Leone should ‘uphold the right to freedom of expression and assembly.’

Subsequently, in 2016, during its second review at the 32nd session on 14 April 2016, Sierra Leone received 208 recommendations from 80 countries with references made to the right to freedom of expression and the press but with no specific reference to digital rights.

During its most recent review which took place at the 38th session of the UPR on 12 May 2021, Sierra Leone recorded its highest number of recommendations which was 268 recommendations made by 103 countries. Out of these recommendations, no specific mentions were made with respect to digital rights. However, there were six specific recommendations with respect to the right to freedom of expression while there were mentions of other ancillary rights like media freedoms, protection of journalists, human rights defenders and LGBTQ groups.

In making its recommendation, Czech Republic recommended that Sierra Leone should “ensure the full enjoyment of freedom of expression for all including journalists, human rights defenders and opposition members.” France also recommended that Sierra Leone should “guarantee fundamental freedoms and put an end to arbitrary detentions of journalists, civil society actors, and human rights defenders.”

For Ghana, it enjoined Sierra Leone to “respect for the right to freedom of expression by ending the harassment of journalists” while Netherlands recommended that Sierra Leone should “uphold the right to freedom of expression and refrain from criminalising the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and journalists by restricting their activities and rights including arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights defenders.”

Latvia equally pointed out in one of its five recommendations that Sierra Leone should “ensure the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly as well as media freedom.” Spain also recommended that Sierra Leone should “investigate the restrictions of the right to freedom of expression and assembly of LGBTI persons as well as harassment, arbitrary detention and other forms of violence against them.”

There were also a number of commendations by recommending states that bear on the need for Sierra Leone on digital rights issues. For example, the United Kingdom noted Sierra Leone’s “effort since the last review most notably in the field of media freedom.” It then “calls on Sierra Leone to ensure these principles of freedom of expression are protected in all future legislation including potential legislation on digital space.”

In addition, the United States commended Sierra Leone “for signing into law the Public Order Amendment Act which decriminalises sedition, libel and slander” while Togo was also “pleased about the abolition of legislation criminalising defamation.” Albania also “appreciates the efforts undertaken by the government evident in the new media law, particularly concerning the provisions on defamation and we hope that its implementation adheres to international human rights standards including the right to freedom of expression.”

These recommendations and commendations all point to the gradual recognition of digital rights as an important aspect of human rights in Sierra Leone at the UPR. However, there are still specific digital rights obligations Sierra Leone could fulfil. In the joint stakeholders’ report submitted by Small Media, Collaboration on International ICT Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Campaign for Human Rights Development International and Sierra Leone Reporters Union, at least five issues were highlighted to be of concern with respect to digital rights protection in Sierra Leone.

For example, currently, Sierra Leone has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the region which currently stands at 13.2%. This could be improved by optimising the mandate of the Universal Access Development Fund (UADF) which was established by Section 13 of the Telecommunications (Amendment) Act of 2009 to “promote universal service and access to Information and Telecommunication services to all Sierra Leoneans particularly those living in rural, un-served and under-served areas.”

Sierra Leone was also encouraged to pass data protection and cybersecurity legislation through a consultative process while also fulfilling its obligations under its Access to Information Law to ensure proactive disclosures and more responsiveness from State actors.

The report also recommended that Sierra Leone should desist from arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists, media workers and critics and protect their rights to express both offline and online. It also enjoined it to amend the Independent Media Commission (IMC) Act of 2020 to include oversight mechanisms and provide opportunities for redress for the Commission’s decisions.

In summary, while Sierra Leone is gradually waking up to its digital rights obligations, it needs to step up its commitments by focusing specifically on these recommendations made by States and relevant stakeholders. This will assist in no small measure to not only advantageously position Sierra Leone for the immense opportunities of the global digital economy but also protect the rights of Sierra Leoneans online.

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