Press freedom declines in sub-Saharan Africa

by Freedom House

(Washington, D.C., May 2, 2007) Overall press freedom in much of sub-Saharan Africa declined in 2006, particularly in the Horn of Africa as well as East Africa, according to Freedom of the Press 2007, released today by Freedom House. However, there were noticeable improvements in the legal environment for the media in a number of other countries.“Continued negative trends for press freedom in Eastern Africa present tremendous obstacles for the development of democracy inside and outside of the countries in question,” Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said today. “At the same time, improvements in the legal environment in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa in 2006 are to be applauded and provide an encouraging sign that the rule of law and democratic processes are making important gains in many places.”

Narrative reports and ratings for countries in sub-Saharan Africa are available online. Charts, graphs and interactive maps are also available online.

A number of the countries in the Horn of Africa that showed deterioration in 2006 already had poor records for press freedom. Freedom House has tracked a disturbing five-year downward trend in Ethiopia, where an already repressive environment became much worse in 2006 since the government began cracking down on critical journalists by expelling foreign correspondents and imprisoning opposition reporters.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the north, Eritrea, was ranked in the survey’s 10 worst-performing countries for the sixth year in a row. As a result of heightened restrictions for foreign reporters traveling inside the country, Eritrea’s press freedom score declined further this past year, giving it one of the worst scores in the survey.

In East Africa, the media outlook in Kenya took a turn for the worse when government forces raided the offices of a highly respected newspaper, the Standard, in March, creating a chilling effect among journalists who were previously willing to speak out. Uganda, like Ethiopia, registered significant negative movement in 2006 and continued a long-term negative trend. The country’s print and broadcast media were some of the few forums in which Ugandans could still express dissenting political opinions, but in 2006, even those spaces were disappearing. Similarly, positive changes in Burundi following the 2005 democratic elections were stymied in 2006, as the government began a targeted crackdown on critical media outlets in an effort to intimidate the opposition.

“Countries like Uganda and Kenya have been influential in their region, and Freedom House is concerned that their backsliding in press freedom could have a chilling effect on democratic progress within their countries and in the region as a whole,” said Ms. Windsor.

However, while the average region-wide press freedom score for Africa shows a decline from last year’s survey, improvements were seen in the sub-scores that reflect the legal environment for some countries. These legal reforms, both on the books and in practice, have given a positive boost to journalists.

In the Central African Republic, the country was upgraded in 2006 to Partly Free status. In particular, the government’s adherence to and enforcement of a new press law and the new 2005 constitution—which respects freedom of expression and decriminalizes libel—led to an improved media environment. Likewise, in Angola, a new press law was passed which, among other things, ended the state’s monopoly on television broadcasting and allowed truth to be used as a defense in libel cases. And in Sierra Leone, fewer cases were brought against journalists under criminal libel laws, resulting in a freer climate for journalists.

Freedom of the Press 2007: A Global Survey of Media Independence notes that in sub-Saharan Africa, 8 countries (17 percent) were rated Free, 19 (39 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 21 (44 percent) remain rated Not Free. Press freedom conditions continue to be particularly dire in Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe, where authoritarian governments use legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment to sharply curtail the ability of independent journalists to report freely. Both countries continue to rank in the bottom 10 performers worldwide.

Freedom House is an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world. The original of this article may be viewed at http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=499

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