Scores of journalists from around the world who gathered on Thursday in Windhoek, Namibia, to celebrate World Press Freedom Day have been prevented from reporting on anything other than a seminar they are attending. “This is an example of how little has changed in the region since the Declaration of Windoek in 1991,” Rob Jamison of the independent ‘Malawi Chronicle’ told IRIN. Other delegates told IRIN that their entry into Namibia to was conditional on them reporting only on the event itself. Some journalists said the restrictions were ominous and indicated the government was afraid of international examination.
The three-day Windhoek seminar, organised by UNESCO, is considering the state of the media in Africa and, according to the organisers, “will seek to reaffirm the importance of press freedom in a democratic society as an integral part of basic human rights”. About 300 journalists from across the continent are expected to attend the seminar.
The gathering in Namibia marks the 10th anniversary of the Declaration of Namibia, a document written under the auspices of the UN that promised to promote free, independent media throughout Africa. That gathering was followed by similar meetings in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. “But we want to do more than just mark a decade,” John Barker of Article 19, an NGO campaigning for press freedom, told IRIN. “The original declaration was too broad and needs updating to encompass technological changes like the internet as well as electronic media,” he added.
Other delegates agreed that the Windhoek Declaration needed upgrading, “It must contain a set of specific principles that governments can be held to,” one told IRIN. Barker said the declaration could only be successfully used as an advocacy tool if it more clearly defined press freedoms. Some seminar participants felt that the declaration needed to reflect change. “We’re in a different world from a decade ago media-wise,” Luckson Chipare of the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) told IRIN. “There has been an enormous growth in private radio and television stations throughout Africa and this seminar will be focussing on how they fit into the picture,” he added.
Over the past decade, press freedom has grown, and the creation of the internet has further spread ideas throughout the world, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a joint statement with other UN officials issued on Thursday. “Yet freedom of expression is always fragile,” the statement said. “In many parts of the world today it is threatened by political, economic, financial, military, religious or even criminal interests. Journalists whose work challenges such interests are liable to suffer intimidation, violence, exile, prison and even execution and simple murder.”
A report by the seminar organisers noted that journalism in Africa, like a decade ago, remained a high-risk occupation, it pointed to the deaths of more than 50 reporters and editors in Algeria at the height of the civil war there. Journalists in Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique and Algeria, have all lost their lives over the past year in the course of their work, the report stated.
The report also pointed out that democratic gains in Africa over the past decade had often not been acompanied by economic development, identified at the original conference as a major stumbling block towards an independent press. It stated that the international community had “failed abysmally to effectively invest aid in building the strong, independent press which is necessary before any durable economic, political and social progress and stability can be assured”.
Chipare noted that there had been major developments in continental press freedom since the original declaration. “Of course South Africa has transformed from one of the most repressive to one of the most progressive in Africa and things are looking good in Nigeria too,” he said.
But he cautioned that democracy does not always mean a free press. “I think we need to get the message across to governments that media freedom is ultimately in their interest as well as the people,” he added.
Ahead of the seminar, Southern African editors met in Windhoek with a view to establishing a regional forum. “Forums are crucial, not just to act as pressure groups, but also to help the media become more accountable to readers, viewers and listeners,” Jamison told IRIN. Gender issues were also discussed, editors noting that much more needed to be done to empower female editors and media owners. “There are still too few women in positions of responsibility and authority in African media organisations, this has to change,” Gwen Lister, editor of the independent ‘Namibian’ newspaper said.
Delegates to the main seminar said they would be addressing attacks on the independent media in Zimbabwe and Liberia and growing restrictions in Namibia. Zimbabwe’s independent newspaper, the ‘Daily News’ had its printing press and offices bombed earlier this year. ‘Daily News’ journalists are regularly assaulted and harrassed by self-styled war veterans and ruling party supporters.
President Robert Mugabe’s government has also been accused of torturing two independent journalists and expelling two foreign correspondents. The Namibian government recently moved to stop advertising in the indpendent ‘Namibian’ newspaper, saying it was printing lies. Neither the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) nor its Namibian counterpart would be attending the seminar, IRIN was told. “They were invited, but it looks like a snub,” Chipare said.
Two African leaders featured in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report released on Thursday, listing what the CPJ asserts are the top 10 enemies of the press. Robert Mugabe and Liberian president Charles Taylor were singled out as least media-friendly in Africa. Taylor was accused in the report of using censorship, prison, and threats of violence to silence virtually all independent media.
“Although three of last year’s worst press enemies - Sierra Leonean rebel leader Foday Sankoh, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia - were ousted from power in the past year, there was no shortage of candidates to replace them,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Whether they are sly or blatant, the goal of each of these leaders is to hold on to political power by controlling information and muffling criticism,” Cooper said.