Letters

CPJ urges group to guarantee press freedom

August 12, 2002
His Excellency Amara Essy
Secretary General
African Union
African Union Headquarters
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Via facsimile: 251-1-51-2622/3036

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned that the constitution of the new African Union (AU) does not protect the right to press freedom. In fact, the language of this new constitution marks a significant setback for press freedom and freedom of expression in Africa, both of which were enshrined in the constitution of the Organization of African Unity, the precursor to the AU.

Such language is essential because journalists in Africa work under particularly hostile circumstances and, because of their important role in building and maintaining democracy, require recognition and protection. In several AU member states, journalists are arrested, harassed, and intimidated solely for their reporting, and many countries resort to harsh, outdated laws to prosecute journalists for their work. CPJ research shows an alarming pattern of governments interfering with the free flow of information and zealously prosecuting journalists for their work--in some cases even drafting legislation deliberately aimed at suppressing the dissemination of dissenting views.

  • The government of Eritrea, for instance, has shut down the entire independent media and has so far detained 14 journalists. Several others have fled the country. The government has accused the private press of purchasing publication licenses with funds from foreign governments hostile to Eritrea, and a special commission is drafting a new media policy to curb foreign funding of the press. A government spokesperson acknowledged to CPJ that independent journalists are currently imprisoned and held incommunicado but would not guarantee that all of the detained journalists were alive.

  • Neighboring Ethiopia also has a dismal press freedom record, and its government is planning alarming changes to the country's 10-year-old press laws that would severely restrict the rights of Ethiopia's already beleaguered private press corps. Although Information Minister Simon Bereket told a CPJ delegation that the new law would promote "constructive and responsible journalism," journalists said the statutes would lead to a crackdown, driving many of them out of business or putting them behind bars. Currently, three journalists are imprisoned in Ethiopia.

  • The parliament in The Gambia recently passed the National Media Commission Bill 2002, which would restrict the press's ability to cover the news. The bill would give a state-appointed committee the right to license and register journalists (and would impose heavy fines and suspension for failing to do so), force reporters to reveal confidential sources, issue arrest warrants to journalists, and formulate a journalistic code of ethics. By making registration mandatory, for example, this bill would give government authorities the power to decide who is and is not a journalist. And by denying the right to confidentiality of sources, the bill would deprive journalists of one of their most essential tools for gathering information.

  • CPJ recently named Zimbabwe, once known for its vigorous and largely uncensored independent press, as one of the world's worst places to be a journalist. Journalists in the country suffer under an arsenal of restrictive and punitive legislation, ranging from the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) to the Public Order and Security Act. Both of these outlaw all criticism of President Robert Mugabe, and the AIPPA criminalizes the publication of "falsehoods" and grants the government the right to decide who may or may not work as a journalist in Zimbabwe. Fourteen journalists have been arrested and charged since March of this year, and police and pro-government vigilantes have attacked several journalists.
    While these countries are the most egregious press freedom violators in the AU, CPJ has documented state harassment of independent reporters and news outlets all over the continent.

    We respectfully remind Your Excellency that most AU member states have signed Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, all of which recognize an individual's right to seek, receive, and impart information without fear of reprisal.

    As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ strongly believes that media outlets and journalists should be able to work freely, and that a public's ability to gather and receive information should be enshrined and recognized as a fundamental human right. We also believe that journalists should not face arrest, detention, or harassment for their work.

    We call on you to ensure that the media in the AU member states can function freely, without intimidation, harassment, or restrictions. To do so, we urge you to work toward amending the African Union's constitution in order to provide guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression.

    Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your reply.

    Sincerely,

    Ann Cooper
    Executive Director

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