Since 1994, people around the globe have celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd. The U.N. General Assembly established the day to encourage governments to respect press freedom, and to assess the state of freedom of the press worldwide.
In Africa, there’s good news and bad news about press freedom. The good news is that some media watchdog groups say many sub-Saharan countries have made tremendous improvements in conditions for journalists.
But they say the bad news is that in some places, freedom of the press is under attack more now than ever before.
Jean-Francois Julliard, the head of the Africa desk for the French group, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres), said the outlook is bleak.
“Actually, the situation regarding press freedom in Africa is very bad,” he said. “We could say that the situation has been deteriorating in 2001, because more journalists have been assaulted, more journalists have been arrested in Africa in 2001 than during the previous years.”
Mr. Julliard said more than 150 journalists were arrested in 2001 in sub-Saharan Africa. But he mentioned one area where the statistics improved over previous years.
“The only positive thing is that no journalists have been killed in Africa because of his activities as a journalist, so this is the only good point in Africa for 2001,” Mr. Julliard said.
But Yves Sorokobi, the Africa Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.), painted a more positive picture. He said African journalists enjoy much more freedom today than ever before.
“I believe that for a continent that ten years ago, for the most part, didn’t have a private press, the progress that has been made is tremendous,” he said. “I believe that now things are clearing up and there is a real consciousness on the part of African journalists to really assert their right and take full advantage of the laws that guarantees those rights.
“So there is an effort, but it really varies from country to countries,” said Mr. Sorokobi.
Most watchdog groups agree on which countries have been the most hostile toward journalists. Mr. Sorokobi’s C.P.J. lists Liberian President Charles Taylor and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as two of the ten worst enemies of the press for 2001. To mark World Press Freedom Day this year, the organization named the ten worst places in the world to be a journalist. Two African countries made the list – Eritrea and Zimbabwe.
Simbi Mubako, Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to the United States, said Zimababwe is doing as good of a job as any other country to ensure the constitutional right of freedom of expression. He said new media laws in the country that have come under heavy international scrutiny are not meant to harm freedom of the press.
“There’s as much press freedom as there is in the United States or anywhere else,” Mr. Mubako said. “All freedoms, which are in our constitution, are qualified.
“In the case of freedom of the press, it’s qualified in relation to defense, security, and then the rights of others,” he said. “Sometimes stories which have appeared in our press have been downright lies, some of them appearing to be intentional.
“These are the kinds of things which the law would like to curb,” Mr. Mubako said. “That is the whole intention, not to scare anyone.”
But Yves Sorokobi disagreed. He said Zimbabwe is a good example of an African country that is putting journalists in a tight spot.
“The Mugabe government did not ban the private press, but it has used the laws of the country, twisted them around in a way that the private press, although it’s there and it’s criticizing the government, which is constitutionally protected,” he said. “At the same time, you have laws that are written, basically to deny this fundamental right.
“So on one hand you can talk, on the other hand, if you talk, we have the right to crack down on you,” he said.
Aside from the example of Zimbabwe, watchdog groups generally say the most unfriendly places for the press in sub-Saharan Africa are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But they do say many countries have made strides to improve their records. Benin, Ghana, Senegal, and Mali are a few of the countries where they say press freedom has expanded.
Jean Francois Julliard of Reporters Without Borders says World Press Freedom Day is a good day to reflect on Africa’s journalists, and to celebrate the strides they have made. But he says it’s also a time to focus on what needs to be done to improve the worst cases.