On the eve of the Assembly of Heads of State at the African Union (AU) summit in Maputo, Mozambique, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express deep concern over the state of press freedom in Africa.
We are dismayed that the issue of press freedom does not appear on the conference agenda. Outgoing AU chairperson, South African president Thabo Mbeki, recently stated that a principal responsibility of the organization is “to ensure that the entirety of our continent enjoys peace, stability and democracy.” But as long as journalists’ rights are suppressed, and they are not free to report on official injustices, such as corruption and other hindrances to development, the AU will not be able to fulfill its mandate.
We hope that Your Excellency will use your authority to ensure that the issue of press freedom in Africa is addressed at this conference, and that it remains on the AU agenda in the future. We also hope that you will use the occasion of the Maputo summit to encourage AU members to improve conditions for the media in their respective countries.
Since CPJ last wrote Your Excellency in August 2002, AU member governments’ have done little to improve their treatment of journalists. Reporters in several countries are routinely harassed, while media outlets are censored in reprisal for their work. Governments in many African countries continue to use repressive legislation to restrict coverage and imprison journalists. Currently, 25 are imprisoned in Africa because of their work, according to CPJ research.
CPJ is particularly disturbed by the press freedom records of the following countries:
- Eritrea: Since September 2001, when the government shut down the country’s entire independent press and began arresting journalists, Eritrea has had the continent’s most appalling press freedom record. Seventeen journalists currently languish in prison there, nearly all of them held incommunicado in unknown locations. Many other journalists have fled the country to avoid persecution. Eritrean authorities have called the journalists “mercenaries” and “spies” and have accused them of spreading disinformation and creating division in the country.
- Ethiopia: The Ethiopian government continues to use its repressive Press Proclamation No. 34/1992 to criminally prosecute and imprison journalists. Two journalists are currently in jail there, one of whom has been in prison for more than a year. Though the Ethiopian Parliament passed a new broadcasting law in 1999, the government has still not fulfilled its promise to grant broadcasting licenses to private operators. Meanwhile, Ethiopian authorities are preparing to introduce a new press bill to Parliament, early drafts of which include harsh criminal penalties for press offenses, place severe restrictions on media ownership, and allow the government broad powers of censorship.
- Togo: CPJ recently named Togo one of the world’s 10 Worst Places to be a Journalist. Togolese authorities have shuttered independent broadcasters, blocked news Web sites, seized entire editions of critical newspapers, and arrested journalists in reprisal for their work. Three journalists are currently in prison in Togo, all charged with “publishing false information and disturbing public order” for electronically scanning photographs of alleged disturbances during the recent presidential elections. In September 2002, the Togolese Parliament passed an amendment to the Press Code that compounded its already harsh punishments. Togolese journalists can now be imprisoned for up to five years for “insulting the Head of State.”
- Zimbabwe: The government of Zimbabwe has continued its crackdown on independent journalists, using repressive legislation passed in early 2002 to prosecute those who criticize the ruling ZANU-PF regime. Though the country’s Supreme Court struck down a section of the infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in early May, authorities have used other means to harass reporters; ruling-party supporters attack journalists with impunity and seize copies of critical newspapers from vendors. In mid-May, immigration officials forcibly removed independent reporter Andrew Meldrum from the country, despite court rulings ordering his release, after Meldrum penned several articles on the economic and political crises in the country.
While CPJ believes that these countries are the most egregious violators of journalists’ rights, the trends of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment of reporters, as well as legal restrictions and censorship, are common across the continent. Authorities in many African countries continue to deny reporters access to government information, and to use criminal laws to stifle dissent and punish journalists who criticize ruling regimes.
According to the AU’s “Constitutive Act,” the union is designed to “promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance” and to “promote sustainable development at the economic, social and cultural levels.” As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we believe that a free press is essential to attaining these goals. Journalists play a vital role in ensuring that citizens of African nations are informed about issues of public concern.
Moreover, we respectfully remind Your Excellency that AU member states are committed to upholding the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, including the right to freedom of expression.
AU member states must uphold their commitments and allow the media in their countries to operate freely, without fear of reprisal. The AU should also promote the decriminalization of press offenses in all African countries. By guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the AU can help ensure democracy and stability across the continent.
Ann K. Cooper