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Pan African Media Observatory deeply flawed, say media freedom advocates

Jean Ping, African Union Commission Chairperson, with Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid
Jean Ping, African Union Commission Chairperson, with Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid

European Commission

Before the 15 July close of the consultation process on a controversial proposal by the African Union Commission (AUC) and the European Commission (EC) to create a Pan African Media Observatory, media freedom organisations mobilised to have their voices heard on the matter.

A component of the "joint roadmap" proposed by the AUC and the EC this year is to create a Pan-African Media Observatory "composed of eminent figures", based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that would have legal status to mediate disputes that arise with the media.

In response, 32 IFEX members and partners working on free expression in Africa joined forces to make a common submission that was lead by Nigeria-based Media Rights Agenda.

While signatories to the joint statement commend the intention behind the Observatory - to advance the development of the free press across the continent - they argue that the initiative, as planned, "would ultimately create further problems for the media."

The proposal emphasises that threats to media across the continent are derived from the fact that "real power is now held by a small group of global economic corporations and enterprises." This is a flawed depiction of the reality journalists work in, argue the media freedom advocates.

"Only a small minority of African media is under the control of global economic corporations... The real issue for the vast majority of African media players is how to overcome the over-bearing and pervasive influence of the State, which invariably seeks to control the media for propaganda purposes, usually to prevent any real public scrutiny and to implement their agenda of self-perpetuation in power," reads the submission.

Given this context, the signatories also raise concern about the possibility that the very governments responsible for limiting media freedoms through laws and violent crackdowns could be empowered through the AUC to enforce professional standards for the media.

"The project departs from a well established principle that a free, independent and pluralistic media should ideally be free of governmental interference and control in that it seeks to subject African media organisations and media professionals to government control and interference," say the 32 signatories.

Other concerns raised include the omission of past achievements in free expression, such as the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which was adopted by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights in 2002. Similarly, the proposal does not recognise the important work of organisations already working in media development in Africa.

Rather than implementing the Observatory as proposed, the signatories call on the EC and AUC to create a platform that would strengthen implementation and enforcement of the charters, principles and mechanisms already in place to bolster free expression throughout the continent. They also request that support be given to groups already working in this field.

In addition, the media rights organisations call on the EC and the AUC to strengthen the office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.

Other press freedom and media development organisations and networks have also added their voices to the consultation process.

In a separate submission to the consultation, the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) and the African Forum for Media Development (AFMD), raise concerns about the strategy of creating a pan-African structure without first strengthening, or creating national, independent media councils. "How can a pan-African structure that focuses on mediation of disputes guarantee the right to know, if in many African countries no effective legislation or legal application of freedom of information exists?" asks the collaborative submission.

Submissions to the consultation process have also been made by the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), the International Foundation of Journalists (IFJ), the South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF), National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), ARTICLE 19, and the South African Press Council and Ombudsman.

Thirty-two IFEX members and partners raise concerns about proposed AU-EU Pan African Media Observatory Project

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