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CPJ, African groups call for press freedom commitment

(CPJ/IFEX) - On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence in several Francophone African nations, CPJ, the West African Journalists Association and six African press freedom advocates call for press freedom commitment in a letter to the African heads of states:

July 8, 2010
Heads of State
Francophone African nations

Your Excellencies:

As you gather in Paris for festivities that celebrate your nations' 50 years of independence, we, the undersigned African press freedom advocates petition for your public commitment to a free, vibrant, and self-sustaining press as a cornerstone of the development of francophone Africa in the next five decades.

Following independence, single-party rule in francophone Africa often sought to restrict the press to the role of government messenger. Yet the post-independence press produced outstanding journalists and, with the advent of democratization in the 1990s, media liberalization allowed the expression of a greater number of voices, which represent the natural range of diverse opinions among your citizens. In countries where the free press has been allowed to flourish, there has been greater political stability and transparency in public affairs.

Many governments, however, still respond to press scrutiny with imprisonments, intimidation, repressive laws criminalizing critical coverage, and politically motivated censorship. Some authorities have mistakenly sought to justify repression by invoking the example of the notorious Rwandan station Radio des Milles Collines, which was a government-controlled outlet, not an independent one. Governments have also cited a lack of news media professionalism in defending their restrictive actions. While private news media do face the challenge of instilling professionalism with scarce societal resources, most have in fact acted with a degree of responsibility that surpasses many other institutions.

We, the undersigned, request that your leadership:

- Decriminalize defamation. Civil remedies have proved to be wholly sufficient in holding the press accountable while upholding press freedom and freedom of expression.
- Hold accountable under the law all persons, including government officials, police, and security forces implicated in crime and abuses against journalists. Impunity for officials and security forces undermine the rule of law and the public's confidence in the government.
- Abandon state-run press regulatory agencies, which have been used time and again to silence diverse and critical voices.
- Ensure that licensing of broadcast media is fair, competitive, and apolitical.
- Implement the Declaration Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa that was adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in 2002.
-Enact and implement freedom of information laws in accordance with the principles of the Declaration, which states that “public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good."

As leaders of countries that are signatories to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, we call on you to use this historic milestone as an opportunity to renew your adherence to the fundamental rights enshrined in these international conventions and your national constitutions, and strengthen your efforts to implement your obligations under the treaties.

You have to come to Paris for an extraordinary gathering of African leaders. It provides an opportunity for multilateral discussions of your nations' post-colonial achievements and the challenges ahead. Your renewed commitment to a free and independent press should be at the top of your agenda. It is a vital and achievable goal, and it is a pre-requisite to successfully handling the many other issues facing the continent. Through its critical and sometimes adversarial relationship with governments, the press is a partner in your goal of achieving a democratic, prosperous and free Africa.

Committee to Protect Journalists
West African Journalists Association

Non-IFEX member signatories:

Faith Pansy Tlakula, African Union Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
International Federation of Journalists (Africa Regional Office)
The African editors Forum (TAEF)
Panafrican Press Association (APPA)
African Journalists in Exile (JAFE)

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