Milestone court verdict in Guinea: Criminal proceedings for defamation against journalists untenable

In a major victory for press freedom in Guinea, a court has dismissed a defamation action initiated by a senior public official under the country’s cyber security law, insisting that, as a journalist, the defendant, Habib Marouane Camara, is subject to the press code.

The July 13, 2023 verdict followed a defamation action in connection with a publication by the defendant, a regular on the political show “On refait le monde” aired by Djoma Médias who’s also the founder of the news website Le Révé In the said publication, which was also posted on the journalist’s Facebook wall, he accused the complainant, Youssouf Boundou Camara of lying in his Curriculum Vitae.

The complainant, Youssouf Boundou Camara, is the Secretary General of the Ministry of Technical Education and Vocational Training. He was appointed to that post in 2021 by the military regime on the basis of the said Curriculum Vitae (CV) which states that he held a doctorate in environmental studies, a claim the journalist disputed in the said publication.

Claiming to have been defamed, the state official brought a criminal defamation and false publication complaint against the journalist. The lawyers for the journalist emphasised that their client’s investigations into Youssouf Boundou’s CV were thorough and that the plaintiff failed to provide any evidence to the public prosecutor contradicting the journalist’s findings.

In the end, the court dismissed the case, insisting that, as the defendant’s status as a journalist is uncontested, a defamation action against him should have been brought under the press code and not the Cyber Security law.

The court’s decision has been widely welcomed by the media fraternity in Guinea where press offences are decriminalised. However, there is a concerning trend where disgruntled individuals, especially public officials, resort to the cyber security law (L/2016/037/AN) to bring criminal proceedings against journalists for critical online publications.

The phenomenon was bitterly decried by the Guinean media in 2019. On August 29, 2019, private radio stations in the country made two-hour simultaneous broadcasts to denounce intimidation and abuse of journalists by the police and the judiciary in violation of the press code.

Media managers, journalists and a lawyer formed the panel for the programme which was carried live by all radio stations and news websites across the country, with extensive tweets by media professionals and press freedom activists in Guinea.

Incidentally, a criminal defamation suit against the same Habib Marouane Camara, then with Nostalgie FM, was one of the triggers of the protest. On July 10, 2019, the Director of the National Tax Department of Guinea, Aboubacar Makissa Camara, hauled the Camara before a judge on defamation charges in connection with some critical Facebook publications by the journalist.

Another trigger incident was the placing under judicial control of Boubacar Algassimou Diallo, radio presenter with Lynx FM, for “complicity in defamation and undermining national security.”

Another incident involved Lansana Camara, editor of the news website, who was detained on March 26, 2019, for defamation, on the orders of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Against, this background, the decision by the court on July 13, 2023, comes as a great relief, as its serves as a judicial precedent expressly disallowing criminal proceedings against journalists for defamation and false publication.

“Fortunately, there are still judges who rule by law. This ruling is proof that Guinean justice can still do great things. We have always fought to ensure that when journalists are prosecuted in the exercise of their profession, this should be done on the basis of the Law L002”, rejoiced Sékou Jamal Pendessa, Secretary General of the journalists’ union, Syndicat des Professionnels de la Presse de Guinée (SPPG).

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) also welcomes the court’s decision and urges the Guinean political and judicial authorities to take note and uphold it accordingly.

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