January 30, 2008
H.E. Alpha Oumar Konaré
President of the Commission of the African Union
African Union Headquarters
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Via facsimile (251)11 551 3036
On the eve of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges the AU to actively defend and uphold press freedom across the continent. CPJ calls on your office to strengthen AU institutions dedicated to supporting press freedom, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Peer Review Mechanism, and remind states of their obligation to uphold press freedom as part of their membership in the union.
Our ongoing research documenting worldwide press freedom conditions reveals a worrying pattern of deteriorating press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, including in AU member states heralded for holding recent democratic elections. In addition, 10 journalists were killed in relation to their work this year on the continent, the highest number since 1999.
A 2007 CPJ study revealed that three nations in sub-Saharan Africa were among the places worldwide where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years; namely Ethiopia, the Gambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All three countries are signatories to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, have constitutional guarantees for press freedom, and have democratically elected leaders with Western support. Two of them, the Gambia and Ethiopia, even host offices of the AU in their capitals.
Yet in each country, elections have been followed by a crackdown on the media. Government repression of the independent press in Ethiopia and the Gambia forced dozens of journalists into exile. In the DRC, four journalist murders and a pattern of government abuses were carried out with total impunity following the 2006 elections.
In addition, CPJ is particularly concerned by the press freedom records of Eritrea, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. Since September 2001, when the government summarily shut down the country’s entire independent press, Eritrea has been Africa’s leading jailer of journalists–and the third-leading jailer of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ research. We found that as many as 14 journalists were still held in secret locations there without charge at the end of last year. Somalia remains the deadliest place for the press in Africa and second only to Iraq worldwide with seven journalists killed last year in the line of duty with total impunity. CPJ also documented in 2007 the arrests of at least 60 journalists in 22 separate cases and the frequent closures of media outlets nationwide. Zimbabwe has the largest group of exiled journalists in the world. With seven years of government repression of the independent press, a battery of restrictive media legislation, threats, and worsening economic conditions has forced at least 48 journalists to flee Zimbabwe since 2001.
The 2002 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the 2004 appointment of a special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the African Peer Review Mechanism were all encouraging signs of the AU’s efforts to uphold press freedom. Yet as special rapporteur Faith Pansy Tlaluka told CPJ in 2006, the challenge remains whether “freedom of expression is going to be a priority.“ Tlaluka said her office, like much of the AU, was hamstrung by limited staff and financial resources. Her office has no power to issue binding judgments, and recommendations are often poorly received or ignored.
We respectfully remind you that AU member states are signatories of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Also, most of these countries have constitutions that guarantee press freedom. But clearly these guarantees are not effective on their own.
In light of the AU’s mandate to promote good governance and democracy, we urge you to give press freedom the importance it deserves. AU member states must uphold their commitments and allow the media in their countries to operate freely, without fear of reprisal. By guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the AU can help ensure democracy and stability across the continent.
The Committee to Protect Journalists