In anticipation of the meeting of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) at the Elysée Palace on February 8, 2002, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders - RSF) has addressed a letter to the five heads of State in charge of the steering committee: Mr Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Algeria), Mr Hosni Moubarak (Egypt), Mr Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria), Mr Abdulaye Wade (Senegal) and Mr Thabo Mbeki (South Africa). RSF wishes to draw their attention to repeated violations of the freedom of the press by several NEPAD Member States.
Although RSF cannot but wholeheartedly encourage a project aimed at promoting "peace, security, democracy, good governance, human rights and sound economic management", the organization considers that these goals cannot be reached without the existence of a free press. It is not realistic, for example, to try to fight corruption when journalists are taken to task the moment they denounce frauds involving the authorities or high-ranking officials. This initiative is doomed to failure if the Member States are not exemplary in terms of freedom of information. And yet, in ten of the fifteen nations that make up the NEPAD Heads of state and government committee, journalists are being imprisoned, mistreated, attacked or threatened, and there is media censorship.
In four countries, press freedom is not guaranteed. There are numerous violations, which are never sanctioned. In Burkina Faso, over three years after the assassination of Norbert Zongo, director of the weekly L’Indépendant, on December 13, 1998 the investigation is at a standstill. Those who ordered the assassination are still at large and total impunity reigns. The brother of the President of the Republic, François Compaoré, strongly implicated in this affair, was heard for the first time by the examining magistrate in January 2001, more than two years after the events.
In Ethiopia, despite a relative improvement, a journalist is still being detained after more than a year for having quoted the views of activists interviewed by a foreign radio station in his newspaper. The audio-visual industry still remains under state control.
In Rwanda, journalists are still being threatened and leaned on, and at least two have been in prison for several years for simply doing their jobs. Self-censorship is rife, and journalists are unable to cover certain subjects without inciting the wrath of the authorities. The audio-visual industry is exclusively at the service of the government.
In Tunisia, pressure from the regime has continued to increase on the rare journalists still doing their jobs as best they can on the margins of a press under the yoke of the authorities. The trial of Hamma Hammami and his colleagues recently showed that the legal system is also at the beck and call of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
For their part, the five heads of state promoting the NEPAD should be beyond reproach in this area. It is up to them to lead the way in order to earn credibility in the eyes of their people, the international community, and Africa’s economic partners. And, yet, even they are not exemplary.
Press freedom is still under fire in Algeria where no investigation has been carried out to find three journalists kidnapped by the security forces between 1995 and 1997. In May 2001, the Algerian parliament adopted draft amendments to the penal code, introducing harsher sentences and fines for press offences. And at the beginning of 2002, three journalists were questioned by the police following complaints lodged by the Ministry of Defense.
In Egypt, the authorities continue to put pressure on journalists, and two press professionals are currently in prison. In Nigeria, in less than a year, seventeen journalists have been attacked, often by the police. In Senegal, several recent attacks on journalists show that press freedom remains fragile, and the authorities need to be particularly vigilant. In the same way, in South Africa, where press freedom is globally respected, several journalists have been brought before the legal authorities, who want them to testify in criminal cases.