Democratic progress in Africa threatened by security measures

Reporters Without Borders urges France, African countries and international organizations to include journalists’ safety and respect for freedom of information in their talks on peace, security and development in Africa during the two-day Elysée Summit that begins in Paris tomorrow.

By Reporters Without Borders, 5 Dec 2013

A total of 54 representatives from African countries, as well as United Nations, European Union and African Union officials are to attend the summit, which is being hosted by France.

“As a result of the crises in Mali and Central African Republic, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, terrorism by Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and the prolonged conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, Africa is a continent where western and African governments regard peace and security issues as a priority in order to maintain regional and international stability,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“But these governments also know that immediate security requirements do not allow them to neglect medium and long-term needs – the transitions to democracy and reinforcement of fragile states that are on the agenda of all multilateral peace talks.

“The medium and long-term needs have to be addressed now. It is illusory to think that the countries that are sacrificing freedoms to security legislation today will adopt democratic measures tomorrow. Discussion of security issues at this summit must not ignore long-term democratic considerations, which include the development of a free press and freedom of information.

“There is a growing trend in African countries to adopt security legislation that curbs freedom of information. National security and the need to combat terrorism must not be used as pretexts to restrict democratic debate and shield the actions of their leaders from legitimate public scrutiny and criticism.”

Security grounds

In many African countries, journalists continue to be the victims of persecution and armed violence despite being protected internationally by UN Security Council Resolution 1738, the Geneva Conventions and the UN General Assembly resolution of 26 November 2013.

The UN Plan of Action also requires governments to “effectively investigate and prosecute crimes against freedom of expression.” In other words, they have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists and their ability to work.

Nonetheless, in its annual round-up for 2012, Reporters Without Borders had to report a “carnage” among news providers, with no fewer than 88 journalists and 47 citizen-journalists killed worldwide, 22 of them in Africa, without systematic investigations into their deaths.

Reporters Without Borders has also found that governments are increasingly resorting to the law and the courts to persecute journalists. “Security” needs are often used against journalists and are cited as grounds for implementing repressive policies.

Governments abuse and misapply laws on terrorism, treason, national security and state secrets to harass and deter journalists in flagrant violation of their international obligations, including article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

While protecting national security may constitute legitimate grounds for restricting freedom of expression, such grounds are admissible only under certain conditions including the foreseeable nature of the relevant law’s effects, proportionality and need.

As UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue has said: “The protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violations.”

There is no shortage of examples of security being cited as grounds to restrict freedom of information. Worse still, it is usually countries “at peace” that use security to justify repressive legislation and behaviour.

Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law is used as a pretext for jailing anyone critical of the regime. Ironically, the spokesman of an Ethiopian journalists’ union even defends this situation. “We are proud that in Ethiopia no journalist is imprisoned for their professional activities,” he said. In fact, four journalists are imprisoned for their professional activities in Ethiopia although all were convicted under the anti-terrorism law.

In Sierra Leone, two journalists are currently charged with sedition for an editorial critical of the president.

In Chad, newspaper editor Samory Ngaradoumbé is being prosecuted on a charge of defaming the Chadian armed forces in an article about discontent within the military.

In Burundi, articles 14 and 18 of a draconian media law that was passed in the spring of 2013 identify 20 subjects that journalists must not tackle. Matters relating to “national unity,” “public order and security” and “national sovereignty” obviously head the list.

Regulatory excesses

After the Westgate shopping mall siege and the start of the trials of its two most senior officials before the International Criminal Court, Kenya is considering a bill that would allow its media regulator, the Kenya Media Council, to modify laws on the status of journalists at will, including the tone the media should use and the way they cover certain security-related events.

In Republic of Congo, the High Council on Freedom of Communication suspended two Brazzaville-based newspapers earlier this week, in one case for “insulting the national police and manipulating opinion” in an interview with a victim of police violence and in the other for “insulting the armed forces” in an article critical of the military.

Cameroon’s High Council for Communication, whose president is close to the government, has initiated proceedings against a newspaper for allegedly violating “defence secrecy” by referring to an attempt to repatriate presumed Boko Haram members that resulted in several civilian deaths.

This harder line can be seen throughout Africa. Tanzania, Gambia, Rwanda and Somalia all proposed or adopted laws this year that cite security concerns as grounds for restricting new coverage.

After a statement by UN experts on 3 December voicing alarm about the growing tendency to suppress civil liberties in Africa, it is more important than ever that freedom of information should not be sacrificed.

 

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