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Nani Jansen

Human rights advocate

Nani Jansen paves the way for the right to freedom of expression by defending the rights of journalists, bloggers and independent media outlets around the world. If journalists find themselves in trouble because of their work, she helps them with their legal defence. She recently helped obtain a landmark decision in favour of freedom of expression at the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Nani Jansen

Why did you choose to study at the UvA?

One day I came across an ‘Introduction to law’ book by chance. The book interested me so much that I immediately enrolled in the Law programme at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Being born and raised in Amsterdam made this university the only obvious choice. The UvA also offers a wonderful law programme and its international environment is very appealing. There are lots of exchange students, visiting scholars, international post-doctoral researchers and students pursuing LLMs.

You simultaneously enrolled in two tracks of law, why?

Initially I only enrolled for the Dutch civil law track, but in the course of my first semester I realised that I really liked international law as well, so I decided to do both tracks and earn two degrees. I thought it would be wise to continue doing Dutch civil law, but because I enjoyed public international law enormously I ended up focusing mostly on that in the end.

How do you look back at your time at the UvA?

The professors that I enjoyed the most were those who combined teaching with actual practise. I always thought that they had the most interesting stories to tell. There is one teacher that I am still in touch with, Walter Rabus. He taught the introductory course on international law, which first sparked my enthusiasm  for this field. Over the years he has been very supportive of me. For example, when I wanted to study abroad he helped me by writing a letter of recommendation. Whenever I am in Amsterdam we still try to meet up for a cup of tea and catch up.

Why did you continue studying after having earned two degrees at the UvA?

After I finished at the UvA I had two law degrees, but felt like I wasn’t finished studying and wanted to learn more. So I applied and was accepted for an LLM at Columbia University in New York. There, I focused mostly on human rights courses, which led to an internship at the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. This department is mainly concerned with wrongdoings and bad practises within the UN.

And then you started working?

After my internship I worked as a researcher with the Security Council Report, a non-governmental organisation. The purpose of this organisation is to cover what happens at the UN Security Council for the countries that are not permanent members of the UN. Through this they make the operations of the council more transparent for the countries that are not part of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. I covered the Peacebuilding Commission at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and a number of different countries.

During my time at the Security Council Report I applied for human rights jobs all over the world, but it was difficult to find a position. It’s a catch-22 situation: you need to have experience in order to get the position you want, but you can only gain the experience you need by working in one of those positions.
I turned to the people I had met over the years for advice and I was told to become qualified first – to get more training in order to acquire a solid set of skills – and then transition into human rights and international law work. This was an idea that until then I had resisted for a very long time because I wanted to work in human rights right away. So I then applied for a job at a law firm in the Netherlands, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, and I got accepted. I knew this is a great firm where I could learn to become a proper lawyer, and worked there for a little over four years.

When did you transition into human rights?

Once I had gained a solid set of skills, my current position at Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) came along. The application process went really quickly. I applied for the job, had an interview, was accepted and only a month later I packed my suitcases and went to London. The MLDI is an NGO that helps journalists, bloggers and independent media outlets around the world defend their rights. Our work isn’t political, even though there always is an inherent connection between press freedom and politics because you need free press in order to have a proper democratic society within which one can have free debate.

What is your mission there?

Our mission is very simple: if journalists, bloggers, or independent media workers get into trouble because of their work we help them with their legal defence. The ultimate goal of this organisation is to foster a world-wide society within which information can flow freely and people can make informed choices about the governments they elect and those that are in power. It works to encourage proper democratic dialogue in societies. We are not an advocacy organisation, we don’t lobby, instead we focus purely on legal defence. 

So even though we don’t have a political agenda, at times some of the journalists that speak out against things like corruption in government are perceived as having a political agenda. Often they are regarded that way just because their opinions are not in line with the opinions of the government.

Does your job at MLDI mean you travel a lot?

Yes indeed, I’ve been on 85 flights in the past year. Some of those flights were case-related, others for conferences and international meetings. It comes with the territory, and you can get a lot of work done on the plane, especially because there is no email.

You helped free two Rwandan journalists from jail.

An interesting case I worked on with MLDI was in Rwanda, where we helped two Rwandan journalists who were jailed for their independent journalism. They had published articles that criticised government policy, corruption and the gacaca court system, through which justice was dispensed for those who committed genocide.

Agnès Uwimana Nkusi had been sentenced to 17 years in jail for undermining national security, minimising the genocide and defaming Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Her colleague Saidati Mukakibibi  received a seven-year sentence for her work for the same newspaper.

Thanks to the help of MLDI the sentences of the journalists were reduced. Saidati was freed in June 2013 and Agnès left prison in June 2014. Since their release these courageous women both have continued to pursue their journalism career. Read full case report.

Can you tell us about your victory with the African Court?

Recently, we obtained a landmark decision at the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights in the case of journalist Issa Lohé Konaté against Burkina Faso. Konaté, editor of a Burkina Faso newspaper, was arrested in 2012 for publishing two articles in which he accused the prosecutor's office of abuse of power and corruption. He then was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

I had the honour of being lead lawyer on this case. We supported his defence in Burkina Faso and then brought the case to the African Court as a matter of last resort. The African Court ruled that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression and ordered Burkina Faso to change its laws. 

This was the first decision the Court passed on the issue of freedom of expression, in which it aligned itself with the case law of the European and Inter-American Courts of Human Rights. The ruling will have a significant impact across the African continent, where many journalists still face prison for libel. Read full case report. 


Latest news: Columbia University New York has awarded its inaugural Global Freedom of Expression Prize to the Media Legal Defence Initiative for their victory with the African court.

Nani Jansen -1978


 LLB International and European Law, University of Amsterdam


LLB Dutch Civil Law, University of Amsterdam


LLM Columbia University New York


Researcher at Security Council Report


Litigation and arbitration attorney with De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek


Legal counsel at the Media Legal Defence Initiative


Legal director at the Media Legal Defence Initiative