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Report: Press Freedoms Remain Elusive in Several East African Countries - 2004-05-03

As the world marks World Press Freedom Day, the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists says freedom of the press remains as elusive as ever in several East African countries.

The International Federation of Journalists' Africa program director, Bertrand Ginet, says that when it comes to press freedom, his organization views the government of Eritrea in East Africa as one of the most repressive on the continent.

At least 17 journalists are in jail in Eritrea, including a local reporter who worked for VOA until his sudden arrest last July. Mr. Ginet says there is little hope that any of the journalists will be released soon.

"In Eritrea, the situation is very bad," he said. "Basically, they are in jail because the government is trying to stifle [the] voice of dissent and journalists to express a different opinion. We do not have any news regarding their health and so on, and we are very worried about what's happening in that country. It is very difficult to put specific pressure on the Eritrean government, which is actually remaining deaf to any call from the international community."

Officials in Eritrea have said that some of the journalists are not in jail, but are performing their military service, which is required of all citizens. Press freedom advocates say the situation is not much better across the border in Ethiopia. In its most recent annual report, Reporters Without Borders severely criticized the Ethiopian government for routinely detaining and intimidating journalists.

International Federation of Journalists' Betrand Ginet says the Ethiopian government has recently even tried to take control of the media.

"The government tried to replace the executive of the Ethiopian Journalist Association with a new executive nominated by the minister," said Mr. Ginet. "This attempt to set up a new press law created a big crisis in the country and attracted the attention of the world's leading press freedom groups to condemn this action."

Mr. Ginet says Sudan is another government in the region that severely represses press freedom. He says that in the past year, Khartoum has suspended or closed down a number of newspapers that have challenged the government's information blackout on the conflict in the western Darfur region.

The United Nations and human-rights groups have accused the Sudanese government of helping Arab militias in Darfur commit atrocities against civilians in the 13 month civil war.

There is good news about press freedom in the region as well. The International Federation of Journalists, as well as other groups, praise Kenya as having the most improved record in East Africa.

They say that under the government of President Mwai Kibaki, who was democratically elected 15 months ago, the Kenyan media is showing much more independence than they did under the previous, iron-fisted regime of Daniel Arap Moi.