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Campaigning momentum builds as IFEX members intensify advocacy efforts for free expression

Momentum is building around various campaigns across Africa as IFEX members step up the pressure against repressive governments. Their courageous work is aimed at ending the criminalisation of publication offenses that see editors and journalists receive threats to their safety, the closure of media outlets, legal battles and imprisonment.

"Beyond traditional state harassment of the media, internal (self) censorship motivated by commercial interests makes a sham of the independence of the press -- it is a major issue that journalists and advocates in African countries that are 'democratising' are also grappling with," says David Makali, Director of Kenya-based Media Initiative.

At the IFEX pre-GM in Toronto in June, members gave a strong endorsement for the IFEX Campaigns and Advocacy programme and prioritised support for campaigning and network development in Africa.

In an effort to foster greater involvement and collaboration in campaigning across the continent and to raise awareness, this issue of FOCUS highlights several IFEX member–led campaigns that are currently underway, particularly in the politically repressive states of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Gambia.

Glimmer of hope after long campaign for prisoners' freedom in Ethiopia

A collective sigh of relief went out over the IFEX network on 20 July, when news that four editors, Andualem Ayele, Mesfin Tesfaye, Wonakseged Zeleke and Dawit Fassil, along with other political prisoners in Ethiopia, were officially pardoned and released from prison after 21 months of confinement.

IFEX members in Africa and around the world have been campaigning for the release of political prisoners and journalists in Ethiopia since 2 November 2005 - the date of a protest by the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party, which led to a major crackdown by Prime Minister Meles Zenawai's government. Among the 38 individuals arrested for being mouthpieces for the opposition and charged with treason and genocide, were 17 publishers and Kifle Mulat, the head of IFEX member the Ethiopian Free Journalists' Association (EFJA). Mulat was forced into exile as a result.

Despite the welcome news, the campaign for free expression in Ethiopia continues. Efforts are underway for two journalists in particular, Abey Gizaw and Zelalem Guebre, who remain in prison in poor conditions on similar charges.

On 29 June 2007, as part of the "African Journalists Out of Jail Campaign" the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), West African Journalists' Association and others launched an appeal for imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Gambia and Zimbabwe - "the worst offenders of free expression on the continent." According to Gabriel Baglo, Director of IFJ's Africa Regional Office, "It was aimed at heads of states, political leaders, government officials, the judiciary, parliamentarians and all personalities who wield power that can free our colleagues in jail."

This campaign was born out of the IFJ African affiliate's regional meeting in Rabat, Morocco in September 2006, and is tied to the organisation's advocacy strategy against impunity. It aims to see imprisoned journalists freed and an end to policies and laws that put professional journalists behind bars.

Seeking justice and legal reform in the Gambia

The dismal free expression record in the Gambia is not going unnoticed thanks to the campaigning efforts of IFEX African and international members. The Network of African Freedom of Expression Organisations (NAFEO) and MFWA launched a multi-faceted campaign in May 2007 in response to continued repression of the independent press by the government, including the arrest and detention of journalists, the closure of media outlets and the banning of public meetings on free expression. Tension has been further heightened since the disappearance of Chief Ebrima Manneh, a journalist of the "Daily Observer", who was arrested on 11 July 2006. The government has recently denied detaining Manneh at all, though he was recently spotted in hospital under police custody and is rumoured to have been detained in various police stations throughout the country. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

By filing a lawsuit on Manneh's behalf against the Republic of Gambia at the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Nigeria, these groups are using the MFWA's Journalists' Legal Defense Programme to push for the immediate release of Manneh and appropriate compensation for his unlawful detainment.

In July, MFWA and NAFEO shone a bright light on President Yahya Jammeh's appalling record of disregard for the rights of journalists and critics with the publication of a book on the Gambia during his time in office, between 1994 and 2006.

The campaign also picked up momentum ahead of the African Union (AU) heads of state summit on 25 to 27 June 2007. NAFEO members in attendance, including Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Journaliste en Danger (JED) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), along with other organisations including ARTICLE 19 and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, drew up an African Treaty on free expression and also mobilised support for advocacy in the Gambia.

As Prof. Kwame Karikari, Director of MFWA, points out, "If you protest a law and don't reform it, nothing will change. So we have recently begun a legal reform programme aimed at changing laws that are detrimental to press freedom and freedom of expression in general. . .[and] advocating at the level of the AU for the establishment of press freedom treaties."

Planning for next NAFEO meeting, scheduled for September 2007, is currently underway. Please contact [email protected] for details or to support this initiative.

Cries from Table Mountain: African free press campaign tops the WAN Congress agenda

On 4 June 2007, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) kicked off the 60th World Newspaper Congress and the 14th World Editors Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. Making this event their first annual meeting in Africa, WAN took the opportunity to present the Declaration of Table Mountain - a call to action for all African states to uphold freedom of the press and the independent media. As part of this long-term campaign, WAN plans to present the Declaration to the UN General Assembly, UNESCO and the African Union, in the hopes of seeing changes leading to a democratic and pluralistic media within the next ten years.

"By persistently and courageously denouncing violations of press freedom, local African free expression organisations are at the very heart of the campaign,” says Virginie Jouan, WAN's Co-Director of Press Freedom and Development. The campaign is calling on African governments to abolish 'insult' and criminal defamation laws where they are in force, and all other laws that restrict press freedom. "Press freedom remains instrumental in the fight against corruption, famine, poverty, violent conflict, disease, and lack of education," says WAN.

The organisation is working with various IFEX members, including Reporters sans Frontières, the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists, International PEN, IFJ and Article 19, and is currently preparing a set of possible joint initiatives, events, and missions as well as the launch of a website dedicated to the campaign.

Propelling advocacy strategies forward: collaboration and awareness-raising
IFEX members are demonstrating their strong commitment to building a vibrant free press and free expression environment across Africa through growing local and international campaigning strategies. In East Africa, the Media Initiative has revived its monitoring and advocacy functions and is in the throes of organising the Africa Editor's Forum General Meeting, hosted by the Kenya Editor's Guild, to be held at the end of October 2007. Free expression and advocacy for Ethiopia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe are to be a focus of the conference. Contact David Makali ([email protected]) for information or to assist in this initiative.

The IFEX Clearing house is eager to support campaigning efforts in Africa by assisting members in collaborating, strengthening African free expression groups and building international public awareness.

By Yael Berger (CJFE/IFEX Intern) and Katie Meyer (IFEX Alerts/Outreach Coordinator).

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