May 2019
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Press freedom essential for democracy and development in Africa, says Executive Secretary Vera Songwe

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 2, 2019 (ECA) – Economic Commission for Africa’s (ECA) Executive Secretary, Vera Songwe, on Thursday celebrated World Press Freedom Day by emphasizing the important role of the media in facilitating free and fair electoral processes on the continent.

Speaking at a global conference to mark the day in Addis Ababa, held on the theme Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in times of Disinformation, Ms. Songwe said the media has an important role to play in enabling accountability in the democratic process.

“We have seen for instance how in recent years vibrant media are increasingly helping to bring transparency in the process of voting and collating of polls all over the world,” she said.

“If we think of democracy as a means to lift the over 400 million people in Africa, who live in extreme poverty out of their predicament, reduce maternal and infant mortality on the continent, ensure every African child gets an education, and every youth has a decent job, then it is important to empower agents like the media that help to strengthen democracy.”

She continued: “The media as the 4th estate of the realm, can only help us achieve our collective development goals if they have the freedom to operate.”

Unfortunately, said Ms. Songwe, limited press freedom continues to undermine the ability of the media carry out this role.

“Regretfully, some journalists are victims of repression. They are murdered, arrested, detained and censored,” she said as she lamented the shutting down of the internet by some governments from time to time saying this undermined freedom of the Press and productivity.

Between January 2018 and April 2019, 88 journalists were killed in the line of duty globally. Eleven of them were from Africa, notably four from Somalia, three from the Central African Republic, two from Libya, one from Sierra Leone and one from Ghana, an investigative journalist who had uncovered corruption in football.

In the 2019 Global Press Freedom Index, only two African countries are in the top 30; Namibia and Ghana, ranking 23 and 27 respectively out of 180 countries surveyed.

Notwithstanding, it is important to acknowledge that some of our countries are making progress on press freedom; notably Ethiopia which moved from 150th position in 2018 to 110th in 2019, said Ms. Songwe.

She congratulated the government of Ethiopia for this feat. For the first time in more than ten years, no media professional was in prison at the end of 2018 in the country.

“But Ethiopia can do better and I would like to see this country among the top 20,” added Ms. Songwe.

The 2018 Ibrahim Index of Governance shows worsening trends on the continent with regards to freedom of association, civil rights and liberties and freedom of expression.

“Beyond guaranteeing freedoms for the media, we still need to do more to empower the media to promote transparency and accountability which are essential for democracy to deliver good governance. The media needs access to information, to be able to inform the citizens and to collectively exercise accountability,” the ECA Executive Secretary said.

Ms. Songwe said ‘as we advocate for increased press freedoms, we must continue to emphasise the need for responsible journalism, especially in the digital era where fake news has become a major threat’.

“Much has been said about the dangers of irresponsible media, and the threats it poses to peace and security in particular. It is important that in our journalism practices today, we do not undermine the freedoms that have been fought for by our forbearers with sweat and sometimes blood.”

She challenged the press to be objective, truthful and innovative in their line of duty.

“This is the only way we can build trust and together engineer the path to a democracy that yields dividends for all,” Ms. Songwe.

She congratulated the Government of Ghana for passing the Right to Information Law in March this year.

This is an important demonstration of a government’s commitment to subject itself to accountability, said Ms. Songwe.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been named as laureate of the 2019 edition of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize for the positive changes he has introduced in the county and the Horn of African region.

In her speech, President Sahlework Zewde, said thanked UNESCO for the award on the PM, adding Ethiopia will redouble its efforts in promoting press freedom. The reforms have brought freedom of expression, she said.

“We all know that our track record in the past was far from reassuring but we have taken major steps to make things better now. We have released political activists and journalists from detention, lifted the ban on some media outlets and changed some of the ill-fitting media laws,” she said.

For her part, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, said press freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies.

All States and all nations are strengthened by information, debate and the exchange of opinions.

“The existence of free, pluralistic and independent media is a prerequisite for the proper functioning of democracies. Independent journalism provides an opportunity to present facts to citizens and to form an opinion,” she said.

Thomas Kwesi Quartey, the Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, reminded the media to ensure fair coverage of elections.

 

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