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Media Watch Group: Press Freedom in Africa Ranges from Best to Worst

A leading press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, says more than 50 journalists were killed in the course of their work in 2004. That figure is the highest it has been since 1995. The best and the worst case scenarios for journalists can be found on the African continent.

Reporters Without Borders is calling 2004 the deadliest year in a decade for media professionals, with 53 journalists and 15 assistants killed around the globe.

In a report released Wednesday, the group says last year, in Africa alone, almost 200 journalists were arrested, another 176 were threatened or attacked, and one journalist was killed.

The head of Reporters Without Borders' Africa desk, Leonard Vincent, explains his belief that press freedom in Africa can range from the best to the worst.

"In great democracies like South Africa or in new democracies like Benin, Cape Verde or Ghana or other countries like this, press freedom is really rather like it is in Europe," he explained. "But we have the worst like in Cote D'Ivoire or recently in The Gambia where our correspondent and one of the most respected journalists was shot dead by unknown persons."

He is referring to Deyda Hydara, killed December 16 amid tensions between the government and the press.

Africa reported the lowest number of media professionals killed, with a single journalist murdered, but that fact does not diminish Mr. Vincent's concern.

"The situation is still worrying even if we have only one or two journalists killed in Africa," he added. "The violence is very high. The climate, the atmosphere is very very tense."

He says he is troubled by reports from eastern Congo, where journalists say they are being harassed, arrested or tortured. And he adds that the state of the press is especially dire in Eritrea.

"This is one of the worst countries in the world," he noted. "You know, it looks like North Korea, in fact, and we're very concerned and very worried to see that happen in Africa. Eritrea is in a situation completely frozen for more than three years. There has been no private press, no expression whatsoever besides what the government wants to hear, and state media completely taking orders at the ministry. So this is a very disastrous situation."

He adds that at least 14 journalists detained in Eritrea are being held in secret locations, without any outside contact since 2002.

On a positive note, Mr. Vincent has high hopes for Zimbabwe, where the government has used strict media laws to shut down newspapers, including the 2003 closure of The Daily News. He says good news might come from Zimbabwe's Supreme Court in the next few weeks, with a possible ruling that the paper would be allowed to publish again in Harare.