Issues of World Press Freedom Day raised in U.N., Africa
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
Press advocacy groups in Africa are beginning a new campaign to remove "insult laws" from the books that protect political figures from criticism. The laws, which are found to restrict freedom of expression to varying degrees of severity in 48 out of 53 African nations, result in the imprisonment of many political reporters for what they feel is necessary criticism of their governments.
The campaign was launched on Monday in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. The date was chosen so that the workshops would take place on World Press Freedom Day (Tuesday, May 3). In the nation of Zambia, to take one example, a three-year jail sentence is prescribed for a journalist who defames or ridicules the President or any other prince.
The laws are supposed to exist to protect the dignity and reputation of public figures. However, according to some critics, they are used to attack journalists who make personal references to some politicians, and those who allege misconduct or corruption by high public officials, such as heads of state or parliamentarians.
"We want to create awareness of these laws and lobby for their repeal in Africa," said research manager Kandji Kaitira of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
According to the Zimbabwe Daily News, a number of African media groups are taking part in the effort, including World Press Freedom Committee, the Southern African National Editors' Forum, the Southern African Editors' Forum, the Southern African Journalists' Association, Journalistes en Danger (JED) of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Organisations of the Media in Central Africa, the Media Foundation for West Africa and Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria.
Kenya in Africa, and some countries in South America, have already removed such laws from the books. However, in at least one European Union country, Poland, insulting a head of state remains a crime (see freedom of speech), though the January 5 2005 conviction of Jerzy Urban for having insulted the pope could in principle be overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.
Negativism in coverage of Africa
Last month, the result of an unusual study by 11 former African presidents was announced in a Johannesburg press conference. The former leaders stated that based on their review of certain American outlets for the past decade (1994-2004), coverage was found to be overwhelmingly negative, crisis-driven and dismissive of Africa's democratic progress. The result of this one-sidedness, they claim, actually becomes detrimental to further progress being made by Africa.
"Negative perceptions lead to negative outcomes — lower levels of aid and lower investments," said Joaquim Chissano, one-time president of Mozambique, who helped put an end to decades of civil war in his country.
The period was chosen because of a trend they saw toward democracy and free markets during that period in diverse nations. Chissano said, "Coverage of Africa... is, at best, dismissive of the continent's progress and potential... At worst, coverage disregards recent trends towards democratisation, betraying an almost contemptuous lack of interest in the potential and progress being achieved on the continent," he said.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and US News and World Report were reviewed in the study.
Ten stories the world should hear more about
To focus media awareness on World Press Freedom Day, the U.N. Department of Public Information (DPI) launched a new initiative it calls "Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About". These are items that in the strongly expressed opinion of the U.N. spokesman, are critical issues which are not receiving adequate attention by the major media, compared to other stories which are focused on almost exclusively, such as Iraq.
Some of the stories concern ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises to which the U.N. is responding, while others concern underreported good news. For example:
"Five: Tajikistan, rising from the ashes of civil war. Again, you know, we often complain that while the cliche is that 'no news is good news', when it comes to media and the U.N., 'good news is no news'. Well, the fact is, here is a good news story, formidable challenges in the aftermath of a deadly civil war, and yet a country that is persisting on the road to peace and recovery — it hardly gets reported."
The spokesman concluded:
"Our staff and the public information staff of the various U.N. agencies are eager to work with you to raise the profile of these topics. We have summaries available of the story behind each of the ten issues on the list... All of them list contact points from whom you can seek further information. We've also posted links to more information sources on our website to help you if the list inspires you. And these are also links to the U.N. officers and agencies concerned with each issue. And if it piques your curiosity sufficiently, we're happy to help by arranging interviews. The staff of DPI and those of other U.N. offices are committed to working with you to help raise the world's awareness of these and other stories that we believe the world needs to know more about. I urge you to use the initiative as a resource, as you go about your tough job, the business of covering the news. After all you are one of the most, perhaps — we think — the most, important source of information about world events."
The stories are listed on the new Ten Stories space on the U.N. website.