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World Press Freedom Day: Statement from the MFWA

The theme for this year's celebration of World Press Freedom Day, Media, Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, could not have been more appropriate in any other year than this one, particularly for countries in West Africa.

(MFWA/IFEX) - Accra, April 30, 2009

The first principle of a free society is an untrammelled flow of words in an open forum.
- Stevenson, Adlai E.

The theme for this year's celebration of World Press Freedom Day, Media, Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, could not have been more appropriate in any other year than this one, particularly for countries in West Africa. Dialoguing has no alternative in creating mutual understanding and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) believes that the media are critical to promoting dialogue because at their best they provide a platform for debating matters that affect society. In conflict-ridden Niger and Mali, where rebel groups are fighting, and in countries like Mauritania, Guinea, and Guinea Bissau that are prone to coups d'état, the media have played an unquestionable role in consolidating dialogue and reconciliation.

In MFWA's observations of the media scene in West Africa in 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 (January to April), Cape Verde could be considered as the sub-region's paradise for press freedom. It is the only country where the media enjoyed complete freedom to operate without one report of any kind of governmental, as well as non-state, act of impediment. It is also the only country where no defamation case, civil or criminal, was recorded, and the only place whose constitution protects the journalist's sources of information.

The presidential pardon, extended to El Malick Seck on April 24, 2009 by His Excellency President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, was an encouraging example of how governments can promote democracy and good governance by tolerating media freedom in particular and free expression in general.

Media freedom violations in West Africa, as monitored by the MFWA, show that majority of countries in the sub region remain intolerant of the media.

A total of 22 incidents were recorded and disseminated during the first quarter (January to March). Arrests and detentions topped the list with six cases followed by four assault cases, three threats, and three cases of suspensions and revoking of license. Gambia topped the list of violations with six cases comprising three arrests, two assaults and one defamation charge. Mauritania came second in violations recording three cases, all arrests and detentions. By the end of April 2009, nine more alerts had been issued increasing the number to 31. Arrests and detentions still topped the list shooting from six to ten while assault cases rose from four to six. April recorded two censorship cases.

The dominant charge against journalists was "publishing and disseminating false information" and in a majority of the cases, the state was the plaintiff and journalists charged with defamation were convicted to prison terms or fined heavily.

A number of cases also hang unresolved, notable among them the Chief Ebrima Manneh, Deyda Hydara, Moussa Saidhykhan and Lamin Fatty cases in the Gambia; the Harry Yansanneh's in Sierra Leone and finally that of Moussa Kaka and Boussada Ben Ali in Niger.

As the world observes a free press day, MFWA wants to stress that criticism of government and use of dialogue are vital to the success of any democracy whereas stifling the media inhibits free debate on vital matters of public concern.

MFWA is using this opportunity to let African countries that continue to suppress free speech understand that tyrannies thrive on mass ignorance and that the best governments ever are those that tolerate divergent views and create enabling environments for dialogue. Those media that consciously traverse the limitations of free expression should also know that their actions are disparaging and undermine the ethics of the profession. And 'kudos' to all human rights and civil society organizations, political parties and their leaders who cherish democracy and who over the years have advocated freedom of speech and of the media, and the promotion of good governance in general.

Issued by the MFWA, Accra on April 30, 2009

The MFWA is a regional independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Accra. It was founded in 1997 to defend and promote the rights and freedom of the media and all forms of expression.

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