World Press Freedom Day

    Today is World Press Freedom Day which is commemorated under the global theme “Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. In commemoration of this day, we must assess the state of freedom of expression, particularly press freedom in Africa. We must also pay tribute to all governments which have repealed laws that suppress freedom of expression and which have adopted laws that advance this right. These include Liberia and Niger, whose Presidents have signed the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws. The recent adoption of the Model Law on Access to Information by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights must also be applauded. This law, which is the first of its kind on the Continent, seeks to inspire and guide legislatures in enacting their national laws and will hopefully usher a greater era of openness and increase the number of countries with access to information legislation on our Continent. Currently, only eleven of the fifty four have these laws, Rwanda being the latest to adopt one.  Later this month, the Pan African Parliament will also be launching a campaign to promote media freedom in Africa.   

    We must also use this day to remember all the journalists on the Continent, who were murdered, disappeared mysteriously, are languishing in prison and who are subjected to arrest, harassment, intimidation and other human rights violations, often with impunity. Let us remember in particular, Chief Ebrimah Manneh of The Gambia who mysteriously disappeared after his arrest in 2006, his country man, Deyda Hydara who was brutally murdered with impunity by unknown assailants in 2004. Let us use this day to renew our call for the release of all the journalists who have been imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. These include twenty eight Eritrean journalists who have been in custody since 2001, three of whom are reported to have died in detention and Eskinder Nega the Ethiopian journalist who is serving an eighteen year sentence on terror and treason charges for his online articles and public speeches about the possible impact of the ‘Arab Spring’ on the political situation in Ethiopia.   

    Whilst we have made some strides on the advancement of freedom of expression, a lot still needs to be done to make this right a reality for the Peoples of Africa. 

    Most countries on the continent still have on their statute books criminal defamation, insult laws and laws that make it an offence to publish false news. These laws are often used by government officials, politicians and corporate interests to punish legitimate critical expression. The most recent example is Burundi, where in April this year the Senate signed the new media law which restricts reporting on amongst others, “information that could affect the credit of the state and the national economy” and “information that could affect the stability of the currency.” This law also requires journalists to refrain from publishing information that could affect, amongst others “morality and good conduct, honour and human dignity and the privacy of individuals.” This law, if passed, has the potential to reverse the gains that the country has made in the area of media freedom.  In South Africa, now that the Protection of State Information Bill is almost behind us, we must watch with keen interest the process of migration from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting.  We must ensure that this process is managed in a way that takes into consideration freedom of expression. The process must not widen the already existing ‘digital divide’ by diminishing access to broadcasting services by the disadvantaged sector of our population and less well- resourced broadcasters, in particular local and community broadcasters, thereby undermining media plurality and diversity.

    This month we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the OAU.  It is my hope that we will use this occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the importance of freedom of expression as a cornerstone for democracy and as a means of ensuring the respect for all human rights and freedoms. 

    Pansy Tlakula

    Member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.

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      Date: 03 May 2013

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