President Thabo Mbeki
President of Republic of South Africa,
And Chair of African Union
Dear Mr President,
We would like to extend our best wishes to your excellency and through you to the African heads of States and government, delegates and brothers and sisters who are participating at the African Union meeting of Heads of State in Maputo. We are convinced that the present AU summit would perform tasks that would have a major positive impact on the growth and development of the African peoples.
We hope that our newly established organization, AU would, among others, focus on and discuss the issue of the exercise of the rights to press freedom which is based on the right of peoples to freedom of expression.
We are desirous that the African Union Constitution would firmly stand for the respect and exercise of press freedom; embrace the accountability and responsibilities of all concerned parties, protect press freedom from attacks; and strongly protest against undemocratic practices of dictators, and strongly requires professionals to be governed by code of ethics.
We have concrete grounds for calling on the African Union to focus its attention on the question of the respect of the right to freedom of expression. Journalists in Africa work under particularly hostile circumstances and, because of their important role in building and maintaining democracy, require recognition and protection.
In several AU member states, journalists are arrested, harassed, and intimidated solely for their reporting, and many countries resort to harsh, outdated laws to prosecute journalists for their work. Research conducted by African and international press institutions shows an alarming pattern of governments interfering with the free flow of information and zealously prosecuting journalists for their work-in some cases even drafting legislation deliberately aimed at suppressing the dissemination of dissenting views.
For instance, a government in an African country has shut down the entire independent media and has so far detained a dozen journalists. Several others have fled the country. A government spokesperson acknowledged to NGO that independent journalists are currently imprisoned and held incommunicado but would not guarantee that all of the detained journalists were alive.
My country, Ethiopia also has a dismal press freedom record, and its government is planning alarming changes to the country's 11-year-old press laws that would severely restrict the rights of Ethiopia's already beleaguered private press corps. Although the Ethiopian authorities claim that the new law would promote "constructive and responsible journalism," we believe that the statutes would lead to a crackdown, driving many of them out of business or putting them behind bars. Currently, two journalists are imprisoned in Ethiopia, more than 40 journalists have pending court cases. While these and other few African countries are the most egregious press freedom violators in the AU, international press organizations, have documented state harassment of independent reporters and news outlets all over the continent.
The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA) respectfully reminds Your Excellency that most AU member states have signed Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, all of which recognize an individual's right to seek, receive, and impart information without fear of reprisal.
As an African association of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom in Ethiopia EFJA strongly believes that media outlets and journalists should be able to work freely, and that a public's ability to gather and receive information should be enshrined and recognized as a fundamental human right. We also believe that journalists should not face arrest detention, or harassment for their work.
We call on your Excellency and the African heads of state and government to:
- respect AU and international laws
- release imprisoned journalists in their respective countries.
- change their repressive press laws
- ensure that the media in the AU member can function freely, without intimidation, harassment, or restrictions.
It is our sincere hope that the AU Summit would come up with successful results that would be to the ultimate benefit of the peoples of the African continent.
We also hope that press freedom would flourish in Africa and the rest of the world.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
19 June, 2003