4 May 2008

East Africa: Press Freedom Still a Far Cry in Region

Nairobi — Press freedom is still a mirage in East Africa.

Experiences from participants at the East African Editors Forum showed that the media were still grappling with draconian legislations that threaten freedom of the Press.

Kenyan media practitioners cited the Official Secrets Act that prohibits journalists from publishing what the Government deems subversive and touching on the national security.

Breaking this law is regarded as treason.

However, the Government has promised to table the freedom of Information Bill in Parliament to address some of the concerns over access to official information.

Despite the local media being vibrant, editors said libel and defamation laws are also hinder to Press freedom.

"Journalists are afraid of covering some stories for fear of attracting legal suits that sometimes amount to millions of shillings," said Mr David Makali of the Media Institute.

"The Official Secrets Act has been used by Government officials to withhold information," he said.

Uganda's media have been the most bruised, but have remained resilient against State incursions on free speech and physical assaults.

Mr Ibrahim Ssemujju, of the Uganda Weekly Observer said many journalists face court cases, some dating back years.

In his report, Freedom of Expression: In Defence Of Media Freedom in Uganda, Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, noted: "Freedom of expression is crucial for the development of a democracy; particularly in Uganda's newly revived multi-party system the media can play a critical role in promoting discussion and debate "

Ssemujju who is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative said the Ugandan Government was ruthless in its dealing with the media.

"The media continue to suffer in Uganda through Sate oppression. Victims lack the social networks that can help shield them from overzealous government officials," he said.

In Tanzania, the forum was told, the media enjoyed relative freedom since there is little Government control.

Mr Anthony Ingiza of the Tanzanian Media Council said this has made the media to play its watchful role in setting regional agenda.

Mr Sakina Datoo, Editorial Director IPP Media, said the region needs a robust media network to fight these challenges together.

The president of Sudanese Journalist Association, Dr Muheleldin Titawi said the Sudanese experience was that of a pseudo free media.

The three-day forum ended yesterday with calls to East African governments to repeal laws that undermine press freedom.

At the same time, Makali paid tribute to the fallen hero of journalism in Kenya Mr Wallace Gichere.

"He was a representation of long suffering of journalist and a champion to access to information. He died fighting for journalists' rights," he said.

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