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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
Press Freedom Day
Africa Media Watch
For African journalists, 4 May is not only international Press Freedom Day but also the tenth anniversary of what is known as the Windhoek declaration - a statement of principles drawn up by African and other journalists meeting in Namibia's capital, which called for a free, independent, and pluralistic media on the continent and throughout the world. This week's Africa Media Watch turns the spotlight on the state of journalism in the continent, ten years on. According to The Namibian, very few governments have heeded the 1991 appeal and it says that the media should therefore be responsible for taking stock of itself. "No matter who controls what media, ownership should in fact be secondary to the governing principle of editorial independence," it says. 'Dictatorial government' [subhead] But in Botswana, the head of television news resigned, complaining of the government's refusal to allow him to air a documentary on the South African Mariette Bosch who was hanged in Gabarone for murdering her best friend so she could marry the friend's husband. The Botswana Gazette said Chris Bishop's move was inevitable and rounded on the government for trying to "hijack" a channel funded by taxpayers. "No journalist, who is committed to ... the role the media plays in strengthening democracy, could continue to work under the yoke of interference in editorial judgement that Btv now appears to be exposed to as Office of the President exerts its omnipotence." "We are increasingly concerned that the tight authority being exercised over Btv is just a symptom of a pervasive movement towards dictatorial government." 'Ploy to muzzle press' [subhead] The Addis Tribune also criticized its government for arresting newspaper vendors on suspicion of collaborating with students calling for greater freedom of expression in street protests last month. As a result, no private papers were published for almost five days as papers could not be distributed. "The allegation simply does not hold water, and seems ... another ploy to muzzle the press," the paper says. Sword of Damocles [subhead] But East Africa was rated highly by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), who said Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya were among the safest countries for journalists to work. The Uganda Monitor agrees that the situation has improved but warns against complacency. "Nations that appear to have sheen of press freedom usually turn out to be the ones living under Damocles' sword." "While the government continues to posture about its respect for press freedom, a lot of its actions are the direct opposite." Journalists are still harassed and made to appear in court under "archaic" laws which do not conform to international human rights standards, it says. "The sedition law ... is applied selectively on journalists ... who hold views that are at variance with those of the state, making it criminal to hold an opinion, let alone express it." 'Vulnerable to bribery' [subhead] On the face of it though, Benin appears to be a success story as the media is almost totally run by private businesses, the Panafrican News Agency says. But journalists there are mostly overworked and underpaid and live in a precarious situation because of the lack of a collective convention and trade unions. The Beninese Network of Journalists says some 70 per cent of reporters are not paid at all and are therefore vulnerable to bribery from politicians. Underpaid, underskilled [subhead] The media has also flourished in Senegal with seven privately-owned dailies seeing the light of day in less than eight years, the agency says. But most journalists are not well paid because media bodies have not implemented a collective wage agreement. Private owners say they lack the means to improve wages, so in most cases they work with part-time journalists or volunteers. "There is a need to restructure the press...Anyone gets into it provided he knows how to write. But such people do not know journalistic ethics and that's why there are many court cases against journalists," one journalist in Dakar said. Many journalists have also failed to master new technologies because they are not readily available. "With one computer for a newsroom of 20 journalists, how can one learn to use the computer?" one journalist asked.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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