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Freedom of Expression in Africa - Uneven Success

This week’s feature series is on the role of freedom of expression around the world. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, says that everyone is supposed to have the right to express his or her opinion without interference. Reporters rely on this ideal in order to provide reliable news coverage, despite the fact that journalists continue to be censored, jailed and killed every year. To begin the series, we focus on freedom of expression in Africa.

Naeem Jeenah is the head of the anti-censorship program at the Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. He says freedom of expression is respected in some countries, and not in others. He said, “the terrain is quite diverse, in fact. You have a situation like in South Africa where freedom of expression rights are quite advanced, as opposed to places like Eritrea or Ethiopia, where journalists write in fear of their life, literally.”

Jeenah says that the right to free expression goes hand in hand with the right of access to information. However, he says information, especially from government and multi-national corporations, is very difficult to obtain. He points out that a few countries in Africa have laws promoting access, but it’s not a good situation overall. Jeenah adds that some countries have progressive laws and constitutions but implementing them has been more problematic. He gives the following example, “the right to demonstrate, the right to protest, et cetera, is curtailed, not by the laws but by the manner in which these laws are implemented, and so we have a diverse situation in Africa.”

Jeenah says over the last decade the media in Africa has improved in general with exceptions, again, like Eritrea, which he describes as the worst case of media freedom in the world with the largest number of journalists imprisoned.

He says the media situation in South Africa over the last decade has become more difficult, and poses challenges, for several reasons. One, he says, is that government organizations and big business go to court to sue media over defamation laws, to keep media from publishing information that’s in the public interest. A second reason, he says, is that in South Africa it’s becoming very difficult for journalists to protect their sources.

Jeenah adds that South Africa’s positive governmental and social transition brought challenges with it because, he says, “as society is becoming more and more established, and political society becomes established, politicians, business, et cetera, are recognizing that all of these great rights contained in the Constitution don’t necessarily serve their particular interests, so the challenges to free expression rights will continue.” Jeenah says a main concern is the right to freedom of expression for poor communities, including the right to gather, protest, march, and demonstrate. He says it’s a problem, not only for South Africa, but for the continent. Jeenah says he hopes the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, located within the African Union, will play an important role in charting the way toward the right to gather and protest across Africa.