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Eastern African governments should be held to account for abuses they carry out on journalists and the media, say the Eastern Africa Journalists' Association (EAJA) and the East African Editors' Forum (EAEF).

Just last week in Burundi, website editor Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was jailed for allegedly defaming the government in a report about how much the President spent on his visit to the Beijing Olympic Games.

In Somalia over the weekend, the governor of the Bay region, Abdifatah Mohammed Ibrahim, threatened to arrest or kill journalists who have been filing "baseless reports" on the conflict between the transitional federal government and Islamic insurgents, saying their reports were "propaganda for terrorist opponents."

"It is now established convention that governments, by virtue of their role as custodians of law and order, are accountable for state actions that repress journalists or violations by criminal elements within society that target to suppress information for ulterior motives," says David Makali, chair of EAEF and director of Kenya's Media Institute. "Journalists, like all citizens, must be protected from harm by state machinery."

To address the issue, EAJA, in collaboration with the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), held a regional conference last month in Djibouti, "Challenges and Obstacles of Practising Journalism in Eastern Africa".

The five-day conference "brought together key organisations and individuals that are actively engaged in campaigning for a free press and supporting journalists in their quest for better working conditions," says Makali.

Participants highlighted the urgency of engaging regional and continental leadership in making governments more accountable. They also strongly condemned all physical attacks on freedom of the press and media professionals in the region. Case in point: Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, Somali photojournalist Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi and their driver, Mahad, have been held captive since 23 August, reportedly by militias in Mogadishu, Somalia.

In a declaration, delegates vowed to "stand together as dedicated media professionals... to struggle at all levels in stemming and eliminating the wave of intolerance and violence against media professionals."

They also promised to organise extensive campaigns and to raise public awareness on unpunished crimes against journalists and other acts of violence against media.

The conference was attended by 21 representatives of journalists' unions and associations and editors' organisations from Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Seychelles, as well as representatives from IFJ, UNESCO, ARTICLE 19, Amnesty International and the Network of African Freedom of Expression Organisations (NAFEO).

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(17 September 2008)

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