African countries may not be the absolute worst when it comes to press freedom violations, but a good number of African countries feature highly on any list to that regard.
Three organisations basically monitor press freedom across the world; Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House and Reporters without Borders and worldwide last year they recorded a marked increase in the number of journalist deaths and imprisonments. In fact, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 199 journalists in jail today compared with 81 in 2000, with China being the worst offender.
In Africa, the main offenders for press freedom violations are Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Gambia. Namibia tops the press freedom charts and Egypt has been fingered as the worst country for journalists. So what does all this have to do with the African Union? Well, two of the worst performers; Egypt and Gambia are home to the African Union and the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights.
The fact that these countries even with the presence of the African Union have terrible scores on media freedom which includes tales of detentions and undue constraints on the ability of journalists to do their jobs, does not speak too kindly of the commitment of the AU to media freedom. The continental body has a vision that is basically spelled out as a commitment against corruption and for democracy and a free press is intrinsically tied to the realization of that vision.
This year’s celebration of the World Press Freedom Day could be a time for the AU to take stock and sit up. UNESCO gives the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day as “Freedom of Information” and while its conference to be held in Helsinki, Finland, will wrestle with how best states can protect journalists, it also focuses on how inter-organisational cooperation through United Nations agencies, governments, NGOs, media and academia can be strengthened to better protect journalists as well as what media organisations and journalists can do to ensure their own safety.
It is a great day for the AU to recommit to its principles of democracy and transparency because it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand how the continental body can insist that other African nations observe democracy and transparency while continually ignoring press freedom violations in its own key host countries.