An international association of journalists has lamented the 'sad' state of press freedom in Africa, saying African governments rarely respect the right of independent reporting. The Horn of Africa stands out as the most dangerous place to practice journalism.
While Somalia is the deadliest place to be a journalist, Eritrea serves as Africa's largest prison for reporters. These two Horn of Africa nations received special attention in a press freedom survey released Thursday in Addis Ababa, at a meeting of the Federation of African Journalists.
Host Ethiopia did not escape scathing criticism either. Aidan White, head of the FAJ's parent organization, the International Federation of Journalists, says a recent decision by the staff of an outspoken Ethiopian newspaper to shut down and flee the country is evidence of a climate of fear among reporters.
"Intimidation and threats against the media led to a closure. It is unacceptable to happen in any country, and certainly not to happen in Ethiopia, which is the center of the coming together of African states in the new landscape they are trying to create in terms of world diplomacy," said White.
The survey notes a few countries where press freedom is respected, such as Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Mali and Ghana in west Africa, and Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique in the south. Others, like Zambia and Angola get fair marks.
But in most of Africa, independent reporting can be dangerous.
Sudan was cited for what were called 'backward' press laws. Tunisia had the greatest number of attacks against press freedom in North Africa last year. Senegal and Nigeria were singled out as countries where freedom is deteriorating. Gambia, Guinea and Niger were listed as west Africa's worst in suppression and violation of press rights in 2009. And the conditions facing on-line journalists in Mauritania were termed 'dreadful'.
But the authors saved their harshest words for Eritrea. IFJ chief Aidan White noted that the tiny state is the world's fourth leading jailer of journalists, after China, Iran and Cuba.
"Eritrea it seems is emblematic of the sort of problem you face when a government refuses to open its mind, open its face to dialogue," said White.
White says one of the more disturbing trends is the cynical tactic used by many African governments to cast themselves as champions of press freedom while practicing the opposite.
"We say to them, 'If you say you're in favor of press freedom,' and they all say that. They're all in favor of press freedom, 'in our constitution it says we're in favor of free expression,' goes without saying. This evidence reveals the lie of those governments who on the one hand try to defend constitutional attachment to basic freedom, but in practice routinely abuse and violate those freedoms," said White.
The IFJ report lists 13 journalists killed in Africa last year, nine of them in Somalia. It says 19 reporters are being held incommunicado in Eritrean jails.
The group plans to press its case for press freedom at the African Union summit that begins in Addis Ababa next week.