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International organisations express concern about the approach to press freedom of the African Union's NEPAD initiative

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a 1 February 2005 letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan by a group of international organisations:

February 1, 2005

Fax letter to: (212) 963-4879

Mr. Kofi Annan
Secretary General
United Nations
New York, NY 10017, USA

Dear Mr. Secretary General,

We are a group of international organizations (listed below) dedicated to the worldwide furtherance of press freedom and freedom of expression, as set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international texts.

We appeal for your aid in countering actions of governments in certain African countries to restrict freedom of news media and freedom of expression. The effects of such conduct could well be contagious in Africa and elsewhere.

Our concern has been heightened by the approach to press freedom of the African Union's NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) initiative.

The African Union has devised the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) on good governance, underscoring that the APRM is designed to foster democracy in Africa. Yet, the APRM's good governance criteria have a serious defect in that they omit a key requirement for good governance: the fostering of free and independent news media.

Indeed, Mr. Secretary General, when you spelled out your views on good governance criteria to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on July 6, you yourself included the need for a free and independent press. We fear that omission of this requirement from NEPAD's APRM criteria has encouraged some countries to believe they have a green light to repress their media.

Recently, we have seen such examples as:

- The Gambia passing legislation providing Draconian punishment of media for criminal libel. A leading Gambian editor, Deyda Hydara of The Point newspaper in Banjul and a correspondent for Agence France Presse and Reporters sans frontieres, was assassinated Dec. 16, 2004. Numerous independent observers posit that his death was connected to his outspoken public opposition to that law.

- A few weeks earlier, the Ethiopian Government ignored protests of several international press freedom organizations at a day-long meeting in Addis Ababa (Sept. 28) against the serious media-repressive provisions of its Draft Press Law. The government announced its intention to proceed with this unacceptable law.

- Somalia in 2004 produced a new press law enforcing registration of press outlets with the Attorney General, licensing and imposing criminal defamation and new repressive legislation on publication of military secrets.

We need not dwell on the Zimbabwean government's actions against the local and international media over the last few years -- condemned by numerous media organizations and governments.

In recent years throughout Africa, there has been a significant increase in detentions, prosecutions, prison sentences and other punitive acts against editors and journalists, mostly under "insult laws" (1). A growing practice in many countries is use by authorities of repressive legislation to intimidate journalists, causing many to flee their countries. There has been an increase, too, in regulations to impede or censor media attempts to inform the public, such as withholding of advertising, taxes on newsprint and shunning contact with publications that irk governments.

This conduct varies seriously from what African governments should be doing under the AU Charter and the NEPAD initiative.

Some African governments have taken their commitments seriously. Kenya and Ghana are reviewing media-repressive legislation and making appropriate changes.

We believe the situation in Africa is now such that there is need for concerted action both by civil society and institutions like the UN, UNESCO, the European Union and similar bodies to remind African countries of their obligations under Article 19 and other commitments they have undertaken.

We appeal to you to speak out strongly against countries failing to live up to their freedom of expression commitments.

While erosion of liberties and rights has accelerated in parts of Africa, standards in established democracies are also being seriously weakened in the name of the struggle against terrorism. This has encouraged the spread of restrictions on free media.

Is it not now time for the UN Secretary General to draw attention to deterioration in media freedom and freedom of expression in Africa and to call for repeal of media-repressive laws by The Gambia, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe and other African states in the African Union's NEPAD process?

Is it not now time for the Secretary General to point out how inappropriate it is for countries, such as Ethiopia and The Gambia, engaged in tightening repression of news media and freedom of expression to remain as hosts of the African Union's headquarters in Addis Ababa and of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in Banjul?

Would the immediate way forward be for the UN to invite civil society organizations to a meeting to issue a statement of concern on the erosion of these important freedoms and calling for the world body to demand that countries respect their Article 19 and similar commitments to uphold and implement free speech/free press standards?

Yours sincerely,

James H. Ottaway, Jr., Chairman, World Press Freedom Committee
E. Markham Bench, Executive Director, World Press Freedom Committee
Luckson Chipare, Director, Media Institute of Southern Africa
Johann Fritz, Director, International Press Institute
Dr. Eladio Lárez, President, International Association of Broadcasting
Dr. Héctor Oscar Amengual, Director General, International Association of Broadcasting
C.P. Andrés García Lavín, President of Honor and President of the International Relations Commission, International Association of Broadcasting
Julio E. Muñoz, Ph.D, Executive Director, Inter American Press Association
Alejo Miró Quesada, President, Inter American Press Association
Andres Garcia Gamboa, former President and Chairman of the Information Society Committee, Inter American Press Association

cc:
HE President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President, African Union, (251) 151 2622/3036
HE Mr. Alpha Oumar Konaré, Chairman, African Union Commission, (251) 151 3036
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chairman, UN Secretary General's Advisory Panel on International Support for NEPAD, (212) 963-4556, [email protected]
Mrs. Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, (4122) 917-9012
Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, UN Under Secretary-General and Special Advisor on Africa
Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General, (331) 4568-5555
Mr. Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information, (212) 963-4361

Notes

1. "Insult Laws" criminalize criticism of heads of state, parliamentarians, civil servants, the judiciary and even foreign diplomats, ostensibly to protect the dignity and status of office, but which in reality constitute censorship to prevent legitimate comment and criticism on public affairs.

World Press Freedom Committee

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