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World Press Freedom Debated at International Conference

  • Joe DeCapua

The World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists is meeting in Cadiz, Spain to discuss press freedom around the world. And tensions between some African governments and the media were addressed.

Delegates heard from Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights. She says many individuals and organizations have told her there is “increasing animosity” between journalists and African governments.

“Maybe animosity is too strong, but each side is not happy with another,” she says.

Tlakula adds, “The journalists feel that there is undue restrictions on freedom of expression and that they’ve been targeted and intimidated, harassed. Governments, on the other hand, feel that the media reports very irresponsible way without due regard to the privacy of the people they’re reporting on. And that’s what led to the statement that I made.”

Does each side have a point?

“I think it depends on the context,” she says, “If you look at what happens in some parts of the continent, you still have criminal defamation laws that are used to prosecute journalists that report negatively on the authorities.”

On the other hand, she says, “I think there is a need for the journalist community to pay particular attention on issues of professional ethics, on values of fairness (and) accurate reporting. And by saying this I do not for once suggest that if a journalist acts in an irresponsible manner that in itself justifies the restriction of freedom of expression.”

A free press

“Free press, in particular, and freedom of expression, in general (are) very important not only on the African continent, but everywhere else in the world because without free press you cannot have democracy. You cannot have good governance. You cannot have the rule of law. You know, the media act as a watch dog against those who are in power,” she says.

Many rights groups have accused some countries in Africa of muzzling and harassing the media, such as Eritrea, Somalia and Zimbabwe, among others. Tlakula says those issues can be addressed. She in the past, in Eritrea, the commission “adjudicated on a complaint that involved journalists, who were incarcerated in Eritrea.”

Many journalists remain in jail there and Tlakula says it may be time to attempt another mission there.

“We have reached the point where I think we need constructive dialogue with the government of this country, where maybe my office, together with media practitioners and media organizations and governments, can sit around a table and try and find each other,” she says.

This week, the Zimbabwean government announced it would allow the licensing of four newspapers, after years of being criticized by rights groups for its media policies.

“Zimbabwe has come a long way. And I think the fact that four newspapers were registered is a step in the right direction. And we have to encourage the government of Zimbabwe to continue with media reforms to open up spaces for journalists to operate freely,” she says.

The IFJ says it represents 600,000 journalists in 125 countries.