African leaders urged to defend press freedom

June 30, 2006

H.E. Denis Sassou-Nguesso
Chairman of the African Union and President of the Republic of Congo
C/o the Embassy of the Republic of Congo
4891 Colorado Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20011

Fax: (202) 726-1860

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists urges you as chairman of the African Union to discuss with your fellow heads of state and government at your summit in the Gambian capital, Banjul, from July 1, the need to defend press freedom on the continent.

The African Union has taken initiatives in recent years to boost democracy and respect for press freedom but many member states still resort to draconian laws to stifle critical reporting and comment.

We specifically call upon you to take action against press freedom abusers who have a permanent role in the African Union system.

The Gambia, which is both host to the summit and the seat of the African Union’s African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, has recently shut down an independent media outlet and detained several journalists. Ethiopia, the site of the African Union’s headquarters, has jailed at least 17 journalists as part of a widespread government crackdown in the past eight months.

These events should be of concern to you as they undermine the important work of the African Union in building democratic values.

This year, the Gambia has closed The Independent newspaper, jailed several journalists without due process, and brought criminal charges against a reporter under a repressive new law. The December 2004 murder of veteran journalist Deyda Hydara remains unsolved, as does a series of arson attacks on independent media outlets.

Ethiopia has jailed journalists on antistate charges in the ongoing crackdown since November. The journalists face the death penalty if convicted.

At the end of 2005, for the first time in recent years, two African nations – Ethiopia and Eritrea – were among the top four jailers of journalists in the world, trailing only China and Cuba. CPJ research also found three African states – Equatorial Guinea, Libya, and Eritrea – to be among the top ten most censored countries in the world, with Zimbabwe and Ethiopia not far behind. Violent attacks, censorship, threats, and intimidation against journalists, especially using outdated criminal laws, are widespread on the continent.

Impunity for such abuses, including the killing of journalists in places such as the Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, is all too common. In Libya too, the 2005 murder of journalist Dayf al-Ghazal, an online critic of the authorities, remains unsolved. Meanwhile, an alarming spate of criminal prosecutions against independent journalists has occurred in Algeria and Egypt, where just last week a leading editor and a reporter were sentenced to a year in prison for reporting allegations of abuse of power by high-level officials. The past year has brought worrying attacks on the press even in more democratic countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya.

The African Union was created in part to promote democracy and development in Africa, both of which depend on the existence of free and independent media. Therefore, we call on you to speak out on behalf of the African Union against press freedom abuses in member states, and to encourage your Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to investigate such abuses on the ground and make the findings public.

We urge the African Union to strengthen its internal oversight procedures, including the African Peer Review Mechanism, a voluntary system for evaluating adherence to democratic principles.

We also call on the leaders at the summit to condemn publicly African Union members who perpetuate or tolerate serious press freedom abuses.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director