Africa: From North to South, East to West, Media Freedom in Africa Under Challenge

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Photo: Gwen Lister
Mostefa Souag of Al Jazeera, right, and IPI's Alison Bethel McKenzie, centre, join a call on Egypt to free Al Jazeera staff on trial in Cairo.

The executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI), Alison Bethel McKenzie, delivered a wide-ranging report on press freedom in the world to the institute's world congress in Cape Town on Sunday. Excerpts from the report relating to the state of press freedom in Africa:

South Africa

[W]e are on the eve of elections [in South Africa] ... We have just heard [a speech read for] Minister Collins Chabane... on behalf of President Jacob Zuma ... we thank him for his warm welcome to South Africa and we are honoured to be here in this great land of hope.

But we say to President Zuma, please do not cheat us of that hope.

Parliament last November approved and sent to the president the Protection of State Information Bill, also known as the “secrecy bill”, which in our view gives too much authority to politicians to determine what is confidential information. It also lacks a public interest defence, which would directly impact whistleblowers and journalists who obtain information through their confidential sources.

We strongly urge the President to veto the “secrecy bill” and send it back to the Parliament for reconsideration - before the election. Doing so would send the message that South Africa is determined to protect freedom of the press and defend the right of the public to access information that affects their lives.

There has also been no progress under the African National Congress-led government in banning defamation and insult laws ... a horrible legacy of the apartheid era. The Table Mountain Declaration ... signed right here in Cape Town in 2007 with IPI's backing ... calls for abolishing criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa. Only two African leaders have signed it ... President Issoufou of Niger and President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

It's not too late for President Zuma to add his name and personal commitment to abolish these heinous laws.

Doing so is not just important to South Africa. It is important to all of Africa and beyond because it sends the message that Africans can be global leaders on this issue ... as Ghana did when it abolished criminal defamation more than a decade ago.

Yet for all the progress in Africa ... and much progress has been made ... terrific challenges still remain.

Ethiopia

Just look at Ethiopia. Our board members, Ferial Haffaje and Kiburu Yusuf, were there with me when we tried to visit five journalists imprisoned on terrorism charges. When we were there last November, these journalists were being denied access to their lawyers, their friends and their colleagues. One of them, a courageous young woman named Reeyot Alemu, is battling breast cancer from her prison cell. Her struggle and that of her colleagues ... Solomon Kebede, Wubset Taye, Eskinder Nega and Yusuf Getachew … brought tears to the eyes of members of our delegation who spoke with those closest to them.

Somalia

Ethiopia's neighbour, Somalia, remains Africa's most dangerous country for journalists ... at least 24 journalists have been killed there since the start of 2012. Meanwhile, Eritrea's dictator has literally locked away journalists and thrown away the key ... some of our colleagues have languished in prisons for years. Some have died in confinement.

Rwanda

This week the world is marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide. As a series of commentaries we published this past week showed, some local media played a terrible role in fanning ethnic hatred in 1994. While there is no defence for such hate speech, we are concerned that the Rwandan authorities use that experience to maintain tight control over today's news media and call on the government to allow independent media to flourish.

Angola

A few moments ago I mentioned the scourge of criminal defamation and insult laws. In Angola, journalists who step out of line regularly face the cudgel of criminal defamation. Rafael Marques, who will be speaking here at the Congress, wrote a report alleging involvement of high-level government officials in abuses of mining workers. Angolan prosecutors have harassed him for a year, accusing him of criminal defamation. IPI and a coalition of our partners have rallied in his defence ... for example, by pressuring the European Union, a main trading partner and aid donor, to demand accountability from Angola's autocrats for harassing Marques and other journalists.

Tanzania and Uganda

Even in countries with relatively strong constitutional foundations for press freedom, there is a tendency to flaunt laws. Governments in Tanzania and Uganda have dredged up old press laws to suspend newspapers ... damaging these publications' reputations and financial stability.

Kenya

Kenya is another concern. President Kenyatta has signed legislation ... the Information and Communication Act ... that we believe would lead to state control of news and information during emergencies, plus give the government the power to perform functions currently executed by the country's Media Council. We've protested these measures and Kenyan journalists are not about to have their rights trampled on. They've filed legal challenges against the Information and Communication Act on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Gambia and Sierra Leone

Elsewhere in Africa, we've led the campaign against the use of sedition laws to arrest and intimidate journalists in The Gambia and Sierra Leone.

Egypt

And in Egypt these past few months, dozens of journalists have been detained, sometimes for days or months without being indicted. Recently 20 were put on trial for charges such as reporting “false news” or aiding terrorists. And IPI member Al Jazeera has borne the brunt of the government's wrath, with no less than four journalists still in jail on trumped-up charges.

Morocco

Elsewhere, Morocco has to stand out as one of the more bizarre cases we've handled in recent months. Ali Anouzla, whom many of you might know as editor of Lakome.com, was arrested last September and is now on trial for “glorifying terrorism”. What did he do? Anouzla published a news article that included a link to a YouTube video posted on the website of El País in Spain. The video was removed by YouTube, but it allegedly accused King Mohammed of corruption and despotism, and urged young Moroccans to engage in jihad. IPI has joined with more than 40 other organisations in calling for the charges to be dropped.

In the Middle East, we've seen the great promise of the Arab Spring wither in many countries. I've already mentioned the terrible death toll for our colleagues in Syria.

Tunisia and Egypt

But the Arab Spring has also delivered some advances for press freedom.

Tunisian and Egyptian voters have adopted promising constitutions with strong guarantees of press freedom. We challenge leaders in both countries to live by the spirit of these constitutions and to adjust national laws to the new guarantees ... and then abide by those laws.

Concluding overview

Twenty years ago, IPI held its World Congress in South Africa ... in part to celebrate freedom, but also to show that we stood on guard to defend those freedoms everywhere in the world.

The transitions that were beginning in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America and in Asia would not be easy ... and we continue to see far too many obstacles to press freedom today. For every Tunisia, with its promising new constitution, there is a Russia, where those in power tighten their grip on the media. For all the successes of our Campaign to Abolish Criminal Defamation in the Caribbean, there are countries around the world that continue to use it in a sinister effort to hush journalists.

Just weeks before he became president [in 1994], Nelson Mandela was here ... at the IPI World Congress. He gave a touching endorsement of why IPI and press freedom matter. As tempting as it is to read Nelson Mandela's gently eloquent speech in full, let me highlight one excerpt that embodies why we are here today.

He said: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring, without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

Twenty years on, we still have our work cut out for us. This Congress will demonstrate the challenges, as well as the potential to fight back.

Thank you all for your support this past year, your participation in this important congress ... and your determination to carry on in the years ahead in defence of journalists around the world.

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Mostefa Souag of Al Jazeera, right, and IPI's Alison Bethel McKenzie, centre, join a call on Egypt to free Al Jazeera staff on trial in Cairo.

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