By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
May 18, 2013 (ADDIS ABABA) – The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on US secretary of state John Kerry to address African leaders on the issue of press freedom in Africa during an upcoming continental summit.
In a letter to the US official, CPJ urged Kerry to emphasis what the press freedom group calls Ethiopia’s continued systematic crackdown on independent journalists.
“We are writing to bring to your attention the deteriorating state of press freedom in Ethiopia, where you will attend this year’s African Union (AU) summit. A vibrant press and civil society is fundamental to hold governments accountable and to ensure long-term development and stability”, the group said.
With seven journalists behind bars, Ethiopia is Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists after Eritrea.
An Ethiopian court this month rejected an appeal and upheld an 18-year prison sentence for blogger Eskinder Nega, who is being held on terrorism-related charges.
According to the US state department’s 2012 human rights report, “the most significant human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of expression and association through politically motivated trials and convictions of opposition political figures, activists, journalists and bloggers, as well as increased restrictions on print media”.
In comments marking World Press Freedom Day earlier this month, the CPJ called on the AU to promote press freedom and work for the release of all imprisoned journalists across the continent.
CPJ said that it was particularly disturbing that Ethiopia and the Gambia – which host offices of the AU – are among the nations holding journalists in prison.
CPJ’s latest calls come as Africa prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the now defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the 10th anniversary of the AU, with celebrations due to be held next week.
“We ask that you [Kerry] include the issue of press freedom in your discussion of the challenges that Africa will face in the next half-century”, CPJ said in the letter.
Ethiopia is considered a close partner of the United States on security matters, despite the East African nation’s questionable record on human and press freedom rights.
“When US president Barack Obama laid out his administration’s agenda for sub-Saharan Africa last summer, he emphasised strong democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law, noting that these promote both prosperity and stability. But as long as journalists and political activists are imprisoned for speaking their truth to power, such principles will remain illusory”, CPJ said.
East African countries languished at the bottom end of the annual press freedom index published in January by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), amid increased censorship and crackdowns on press freedom.
Ethiopia was ranked at 137th out of 180 countries included in the index, slipping 10 places due its repressive application of the 2009 anti-terrorist law and the continued detention of several local journalists, while Eritrea ranked in last place for the sixth successive year.
Established on the 25 May 1963 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the OAU was launched to promote the unity and solidarity of African states.
South Sudan was the latest country to join the AU becoming the 54th member state after it officially proclaimed independence from Sudan in July 2011.
This year’s assembly of the heads of state and government will be held under the theme: “Pan Africanism and African Renaissance”.
According to the African Union Commission (AUC), 75 heads of state and 450 journalists will attend the AU summit which is expected to adopt a series of proclamations.