Freedom of expression is under assault in many regions of the world. The right of citizens and media to openly express opinions without fear of retribution is increasingly under threat from repressive regimes and non-state actors. Sadly, parts of the East and Horn of Africa, specifically Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda are no different. With upcoming elections looming, there have been increased efforts to repress or restrict voices of opposition, including legislation aimed at thwarting the rights of the media, as well as more traditional forms of restrictions namely threats, increased surveillance and censorship of key actors. Next week, Freedom House and Human Rights First, two U.S. based human rights watchdogs are bringing together, human rights defenders, dissidents, NGOs and government officials from all over the world to Washington, DC for the 2010 Human Rights Summit, to address these growing threats and come up with an action plan for the Obama Administration and other democracies.
The following is an account of the state of press freedom in the East and Horn of Africa, to be reported at the Summit.
Freedom of the media in Ethiopia has remained severely restricted since the post-election clampdown in 2005. The harassment, intimidation and prosecution of journalists has increased in the run-up to the 2010 elections, forcing many journalists to self-censure. Authorities are using pro-governmental media to attack the private media, including threatening articles towards private newspapers like Addis Neger, demanding that they change their policies and stance or suffer a fate similar to that of journalists following the 2005 elections. As a result, several of its editors fled the country fearing that they would be arrested, notably under provisions in the country’s new anti terrorism proclamation, and the Addis Neger was forced to suspend publication in December 2009. Other tactics used by the government have been to withold press licenses, and enaction of the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation in 2008.
Somalia is at present the second deadliest place in the world for the news media, beaten only by Eritrea. Journalists are victims of systematic attacks: arbitrary arrest, detention without charges, threats of imprisonment or death, and harassment and intimidation. Six journalists were killed in Somalia in 2009 alone, including three from two independent radio stations. Additionally,in January 2010, three journalists were wounded in grenade attacks on radio stations. Women journalists have been accused of carrying out work contrary to Islam, and have been placed by government authorities in precarious detention facilities as a means of intimidation.
The Press and Printed Press Material Act, passed in June 2009 despite significant protest, imposes heavy fines for infractions by the media, establishes a Press Council with extensive regulatory powers to suspend newspapers, and allows for restrictions on the press for national security and public discipline considerations. Prior to September 2009, National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officials regularly ordered the withdrawal and replacement of articles deemed unacceptable. Between August and November 2009, newspapers such as Al-Midan and Ajras al-Hurriya were regularly suspended and a number of their articles censored. This current clampdown is of particular concern given the situation in Darfur, which many Sudanese outside of Darfur would be largely unaware of if not for the media. Sudan has recently initiated its national census process in preparation for elections in 2010 and journalists are meant to play a crucial part in ensuring that any abuses in this process are brought to international attention.
Respect for the freedom of expression in Uganda saw a significant deterioration last year, following riots in Kampala in September 2009 notably with a series of actions aimed at restricting freedom of the media and association. Four radio stations were shut down and individual journalists were personally targeted. The current Draft Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill 2007 if passed will accord extensive powers to the Minister of Justice, allowing him to intercept where necessary. It accords only limited involvement to the judiciary, and also gives the authorities excessive space for abuse.
This post was contributed by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project,based on a report to 46th Session of the African Commission on the status of the right to freedom of expression in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
About the Author:
Hassan Shire Sheikh is the Executive Director of the The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project where he has actively participated in shaping the structure and proceedings of the new UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva and the Universal Peer Review seeking to assess the performance of member states in compliance with international human rights standards. Mr. Sheikh is a human rights defender from Somalia, with over 15 years of experience working in the region. He was the Coordinator of African Human Rights Defenders Project at York University Centre for Refugee Studies and in 1996, was founder and co-director of the Dr. Ismail Jumale Human Rights Centre a Somali human rights organization in Mogadishu. He was also a participant of the All Africa Human Rights Defenders Conference, Global Human Rights Defenders summit, and the World Movement for Democracy. He has testified as an expert on Somalia at the US Congressional Sub-Committee of Foreign Relations on Africa, the US Department of State, and other agencies. He has engaged in numerous advocacy missions on rights violations of human rights defenders across the region. He holds a Masters degree in Economics and has authored, published and co-published numerous human rights reports.
Freedom House: www.freedomhouse.org
Human Rights First: www.humanrightsfirst.org
2010 Human Rights Summit: www.humanrightssummit.org