About 30 Reporters Without Borders activists were detained for nearly five hours by police in front of the Paris conference centre where the 22nd Franco-African Summit is being held.
They wore t-shirts bearing the faces of the 23 press freedom "dunces" condemned by the organisation and assembled for a mock school group photograph standing under a banner reading "Press freedom - 23 dunces in Paris."
Three advertising vans displaying posters criticising the presence in Paris of the "23 dunces" drove around the outside of the conference hall but were stopped by police and the posters painted over.
The 23 non-compliant students of this summit:
Burkina Faso : Blaise Compaoré
Central African Republic : Ange-Félix Patassé
Chad : Idriss Deby
Côte d’Ivoire : Laurent Gbagbo
Djibouti : Ismaël Omar Guelleh
DR Congo : Joseph Kabila
Equatorial Guinea : T. Obiang Nguema
Eritrea : Issaias Afeworki
Ethiopia : Meles Zenawi
Gambia : Yaya Jammeh
Guinea : Lansana Conté
Guinea-Bissau : Kumba Yala
Liberia : Charles Taylor
Libya : Mouammar Kadhafi
Mauritania : Maaouya Ould Taya
Rwanda : Paul Kagame
Seychelles : France-Albert René
Sierra Leone : Ahmed Tejan Kabbah
Sudan : Omar al-Bechir
Swaziland : Mswati III
Togo : Gnassingbé Eyadéma
Tunisia : Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
Zimbabwe : Robert Mugabe
Of the 50 or so countries participating in the 22nd Summit of the African and French Heads of State, to be held in Paris from 19 to 21 February 2003, 23 of them abuse freedom of the press on a daily basis. In these countries, journalists are still being murdered, arrested, assaulted, or threatened, and the media are constantly being censored, seized, or outlawed. Their press laws are often liberticidal and the authorities do not tolerate criticism from the independent press or the opposition, yet these same 23 States have signed many treaties and international agreements that guarantee freedom of speech.
Reporters Without Borders is urging France and those African States that respect press freedom to tackle this issue at the summit, and use whatever influence they have with the 23 countries denounced by the organisation in order to see to it that freedom of speech is secure throughout the continent. Reporters Without Borders also calls upon the African States to free the 36 journalists who are still prisoners in Africa.
Eritrea has the largest prison population of journalists in the world (18). For the first time in many years, an African country occupies first place on this sinister podium. Since September 2001, the private press has been banned in Eritrea.
The second gold medal goes to Libya, which holds the record for the longest-held journalist in the world. Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi-al-Darrat has been behind bars since 1973, without being charged or tried. His place of detention and state of health is still unknown. Libyan authorities have never responded to Reporters without Borders’ questions concerning the journalist’s fate.
Other press professionals are still in prison in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Chad, Togo and Tunisia. Some of them have been given stiff prison terms and are now being confined under particularly harsh conditions.
Moreover, in Liberia, in 2002, a journalist was kept in solitary confinement for several months before being freed and forced to leave the country. In Zimbabwe, in 2002, the police arrested about 30 media professionals. From now on, only a handful of foreign journalists will be authorised to enter the territory, and several have already been expelled from the country. Foreign special correspondents and other contributors also face many hardships while working in the Ivory Coast. Several of them have been arrested since the coup d’etat of 9 September 2002, and threats and assaults occur almost every day.
In Africa, impunity remains the rule as far as cases of murdered journalists are concerned. The sentencing of the murderers of Carlos Cardoso, editor of a weekly publication in Mozambique, cannot wipe out the memory of the numerous other murders that have gone unpunished. In Burkina, the Zongo file typifies this lack of determination on the part of political and judicial authorities to shed light on these cases.
Censorship is a weapon commonly used by some African States to gag the independent press. Lately, in Mauritania and in Togo, some media have been silenced. The authorities use and abuse their press laws to seize copies of newspapers and stifle their loudest critics.
The Internet, which, until now, was not considered much of a prize in view of the low connection rate, is being increasingly monitored and controlled by the authorities. In Tunisia, Zouhair Yahyaoui, founder and editor of the online newspaper TUNeZINE, behind bars since June 2002, is serving a two-year prison term. This young man, who posted opposition documents on his website, was accused of repeatedly taunting President Ben Ali. He was tortured during his interrogation.
Finally, in many African countries, the considerable pressure that is being brought to bear on journalists who are simply doing their jobs, is reinforcing the practice of self-censorship in both the public and the private press. Such is the case in Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic, the Seychelles, Sudan and Swaziland. In Equatorial Guinea, some journalists have fled their homeland in the last months, fearing persecution.
Lastly, Reporters without Borders reminds readers that violations of press freedom are not just the prerogative of incumbent political leaders. In several African countries, rebel groups, the militia, sectarian organisations and opposition militants are also attacking journalists. This is precisely what is going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, and in Nigeria.