A total of 52 African states have been invited to the two-day Africa - France summit that is due to begin on 31 May in the French city of Nice. Representatives of the European Union, International Organisation of the Francophonie, Food and Agriculture Organisation, African Union Commission and World Bank are also due to attend the summit, the 25th of its kind.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will have three closed-door meetings with all the heads of state about what are being billed as the leading issues of the 21st century: Africa’s place in world governance, reinforcing peace and security, and climate and development.
Working meetings will also be held among government ministers responsible for economic affairs, and for the first time entrepreneurs – 80 French and 150 African – have been asked to participate. With the topics of these meetings including the private sector’s role in development and employment in Africa, this summit is resolutely focused on the economy and business world.
The priority being given to economic and development issues should not however eclipse the importance of reinforcing media freedom and free expression. They are essential for democratic governance and the creation of social cohesion, without which fair and socially effective economic development is impossible. These issues are crucial for Africa, long the victim of its image of corruption and underdevelopment.
“There is as two-speed Africa now – an Africa of virtuous countries, which show the most respect for press freedom and the work of journalists, and an Africa of countries such as Gambia and Rwanda that regard journalists as the enemy,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The media diversity in Mali has nothing in common with Eritrea’s complete absence of independent media,” the organisation continued. “The ability of journalists in Ghana to express their views and be outspoken is infinitely greater than that of their colleagues in Equatorial Guinea. As for host country France, it could learn a lot from some African countries that have for years been displaying calm and tolerance towards their journalists.”
Fundamental rights, a condition for development
The press freedom situation in Africa is very mixed, like the political situation. One third of Africa’s countries are ruled by a president who was put there by an army or by a rebellion, while internal crises sap Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. Several countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone are having difficulty in exorcising old demons.
One African leader is the subject of an international arrest warrant on seven charges including genocide and crimes against humanity – Sudan’s newly-elected President Omar al-Bashir. Several demented dictators such as Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Equatorial Guinea’s “God,” and Eritrea’s Issaias Afeworki, a sort of King Lear defending his people against an imaginary war, hold on to power thanks in part to a lack of political will on the part regional organisations and the international community’s indifference. The situation in both Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe is volatile.
All these regimes unfortunately divert attention from the achievements of some governments and the efforts being made by others. Africa has countries with a real democratic tradition such as South Africa, Mali, Benin and, to a lesser degree, Senegal. Other countries embody permanent contradictions. In Tunisia, for example, there is an astonishing contrast between a level of economic development approaching European standards and a political regime of the most authoritarian and disreputable kind.
The political, cultural and linguistic differences, the different levels of economic development and integration into world trade, and the wide variation in respect for fundamental freedoms mean that one should be talking about several Africas rather than just one Africa
Hope in Africa
Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, South Arica, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Liberia, Mauritius, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Comoros, Mozambique and a few other African countries usually get a fairly good ranking in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. In the latest index, issued last October, four of them were ahead of France, which was ranked 43rd.
Reporters Without Borders is closely following promising developments in certain countries, such as Mauritania, where censorship has been lifted since the fall of Maaouya Ould Taya’s dictatorship in 2005 and journalists are much freer to work. We also hail the holding of a national conference on the media in Niger from 29 to 31 March, the reopening of the press club in the capital, Niamey, and the examination of a bill that would decriminalise press offences.
Proposed legislation has also raised hopes of change in the situation of the media in Zimbabwe. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said at the end of March that his government’s priorities included the presentation of a Freedom of Information Bill and a Media Practitioners Bill to parliament.
Although the situation is not entirely rosy even in the countries praised by Reporters Without Borders for their progress or their efforts, and although achievements are still fragile, Africa is on the move.
Africa is facing great challenges: media polarisation in such countries as Madagascar, where the press still have not succeeded in overcoming their political divisions; ethnic divisions in some regions; the lack of training for journalists that seems to be a permanent problem all over the continent; censorship, recently reintroduced in Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda; the high level of violence in Somalia, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo; the lack of a democratic culture among political party supporters, as Mozambican journalist Salomao Moyana, the editor of the Magazine Independente weekly was recently reminded when he was threatened by supporters of the RENAMO party; and the decriminalisation of press offences, the importance of which was recently highlighted by the tragic death of journalist Germain Germain Ngota, also known as Bibi Ngota, in a Cameroonian prison after a month in preventive detention.
There are still too many African countries where journalists have to steer clear of subjects that are off limits. There are still too many regimes that equate freedom of expression with political instability.
Independence does not mean freedom
This summit is taking place in special atmosphere as 17 of Africa’s countries are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their independence this year. In chronological order of their date of independence, they are Cameroon, Senegal, Togo, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania.
Such an anniversary is a special moment for a nation, a time for looking back at its past, its successes and failures, and a time for formulating a vision for the future, for making political and social decisions. Reporters Without Borders urges the countries of Africa to put press freedom at the heart of their project for the future as it is one of the pillars of democracy and an essential condition for all human progress.
The countries that have made the most progress in this respect, Ghana, Mali and Namibia, have a vital role to play with their neighbours. They should share their experiences with the other countries of Africa and France, explain how their media emerged and developed, how journalism evolved in their countries and what press freedom has contributed to social cohesion, political stability and the strengthening of institutions.
Reporters Without Borders also calls for stronger regional political integration and urges organisations such as the African Union to commit fully to media freedom, to embrace it as an engine of change in practices and values and as mechanism for taking the entire continent forward. Africa has a lot to learn from itself.