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Rights Group Issues Mixed  Report on Africa Press Freedom - 2002-03-26

In its annual report detailing threats to freedom of the press, a U.S.-based press advocacy group says Africa has benefited from the flourishing of independent journalism. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists says African governments continue to find ways to prevent journalists from doing their work.

The good news for Africa was that no journalists were killed in 2001, the first time that has happened in the last decade.

Nearly 10 years into continent-wide democratization, independent journalism has emerged as a powerful force capable of rooting out entrenched dictatorships and educating people about the responsibilities of elected governments.

However, the report says African leaders have responded by coming up with new ways to deal with journalists who refuse to be silenced. Zimbabwe, with its political turmoil, was a main focus of the report. Yves Sorokobi, Africa coordinator of the CPJ, says, "Long-time leader Robert Mugabe has been presiding over the systematic destruction of the private press. Mugabe's tactics have involved bomb attacks on newspaper facilities, police and vigilante violence against journalists, and a host of new laws that criminalize criticism of the government."

However, the report also turns to other areas of Africa where journalists were facing dangers and pressure in trying to do their job: Liberia, Eritrea, and Mozambique.

In West Africa, CPJ says Liberian President Charles Taylor emerged as the most volatile enemy of the press. For CPJ Africa coordinator Yves Sorokobi, "Taylor's government has jailed reporters on the spurious charge of espionage, and has banned news media for unpaid taxes. Taylor has also imposed strict new regulations on the foreign media at a time when war is escalating in Liberia, and meanwhile he has built himself Liberia's largest ownership which makes independent criticism of Taylor and his government nearly impossible."

Although much attention was focused on Zimbabwe and Liberia, the CPJ report says journalists in the Horn of Africa were facing their own challenges.

Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki is described in the report as the single greatest threat to free speech in that country. Eritrea led the continent in the number of journalists jailed (11) at the end of 2001. The banning of the independent press in forced as many as 10 journalists to flee the country.

CPJ says conditions for journalists in Ethiopia improved slightly in 2001, but severe structural and legal difficulties impair the growth of an independent press there. The report says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made small but significant concessions to the private press, even though harsh press laws remain unchanged.

At the end of 2001, CPJ says journalists remained in jail in several African countries: Ethiopia (1), Rwanda (1), Comoros (1), and Democratic Republic of Congo.

One major disappointment was in Mozambique. There, CPJ says a once vibrant and independent press grew afraid to speak out after a leading journalist, Carlos Cardoso, was murdered in November 2000. CPJ investigators found journalists terrified at the possible consequences of reporting aggressively on Mozambique's banking scandals, which may have led to the murder.

The Committee to Protect Journalists suggests that one reason no journalists lost their lives in Africa last year was due to the relatively low intensity of armed conflict in places such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Somalia. CPJ says civilian populations were subject to less physical destruction, and there was consequently less media scrutiny.