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World Press Freedom Day

Abu-Bakarr JallohMay 3, 2015

As the world commemorates Press Freedom Day, journalists and media critics in Africa continue to face increasing detention in the name of fighting against terrorism, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders tells DW.

A group of young people on the street in Harare, Zimbabwe reading a newspaper
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Joe

Since the United Nations proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, the day is commemorated every year to celebrate the principles of press freedom and assess the state of press freedom throughout the world. The theme for 2015 is to let journalism thrive towards better reporting, gender equality and media safety in the digital age. DW spoke to Cléa Kahn-Sriber, who works with the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

DW: Can you briefly tell us about the current situation of press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa?

Cléa Kahn-Sriber: The observation of Reporters Without Borders on the situation of press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa is a grim one. Several countries have lapsed into conflict or have continued to be in a conflict situation. I am thinking of course of Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan. In those countries freedom of information has gone down a lot, with journalists prevented from being able to do their jobs and to have free access to sources of information, sometimes due to explicit government interdiction to cover issues of public interest such as security and combat.

In this regard, the situation has not improved. And over the whole continent we see that the issue of security and the fight against terrorism is often an argument that is being used by governments to justify a crackdown on the press.

It's the case in Ethiopia, where six bloggers and three journalists have been in prison for over a year, charged with terrorism without any concrete element brought against them. Or in the case of Cameroon, for instance, where anti-terrorism laws now allow journalists to be tried under military jurisdiction.

DW: In what ways do governments in Africa infringe on media freedoms?

The way governments infringe on media freedoms takes many different shapes depending on the country because we are speaking of a continent, so it's hard to give a blanket answer.

It ranges, as I said, from laws that prevent media freedom - either under the guise of preserving security or just plainly in the law - to the restriction of freedom of information. There is the possibility of going to jail for what you have written or published in news broadcasts.

There is also physical intimidation. You've seen what is happening in Burundi over the past few days, where the radio station Radio Publique Africaine, or African Public Radio, which is one of the most listened to - well, the most listened to radio in the country, has been physically closed down by the police to prevent them from covering the demonstrations.

An infographic map showing countries, where the media is most suppressed.
Anti-terrorism laws in Cameroon, for instance, "now allow journalists to be tried under military jurisdiction"

What is the trend? Is it getting better for journalists in Africa or is it getting worse?

I would say the trend is evolving. This is a crackdown on the media and the argument of security is often used. But on the other hand you also see development through social media of another type of circulation of information, perhaps not with traditional journalists but with citizen journalists and bloggers, who are endorsing a new type of journalism on the continent.

You mentioned Ethiopia, which has been criticized by Western countries for suppressing dissent, including the arbitrary arrests of journalists. Do you see any change in the near future?

Elections in Ethiopia are scheduled for the end of May, so we strongly hope and call on the government-elect to relax their policies regarding the media towards more openness and more tolerance. Media are essential tools in the democratic debate. It's all the more relevant when elections are about to happen, and we really hope that it changes toward an improvement.

How does your organization, Reporters Without Borders, help journalists in trouble with their governments?

We have different levels of assistance. One of the most public ones is maybe the advocacy that we do on a daily basis through the media, but also towards the United Nations and other international institutions. And also, we do more discrete diplomacy with heads of states or other key actors. And, concretely, we also provide assistance to journalists who might be in need of temporary support - whether they are in exile or displaced inside their own countries or in need of maybe medical attention after they've been treated violently. We also provide legal assistance or support legal assistance to journalists in some cases. There is a wide array of different responses that Reporters Without Borders can provide to assist journalists. But a lot still remains to be done, of course.

How do you intend to commemorate World Press Freedom Day?

Here in Paris, where Reporters Without Borders is based, we've produced a report that goes back thirty years since Reporters Without Borders was created. This year is our 30th birthday. There is a report which I hope will help raise awareness on the issue of how journalists are prevented from doing their work on a daily basis. And we are organizing a concert in Place de la République on Sunday (03.05.2015), where we hope the event will be an opportunity to talk about journalists, who are being threatened, be it in China or in Pakistan, Russia, Latin America and, of course, in Africa.

Cléa Kahn-Sriber is head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders

Interview: Abu-Bakarr Jalloh