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Media under fresh global threat

09/23/2003, Wairagala Wakabi: CATIA

Though several African governments continue to harass critical media, a key United Nations summit could soon legitimise oppressive national media legislation.

If that happens, as is probable this December at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), despotic states will be able to ‘legally’ breach article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Specifically, article 19 says this right includes “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.

In the past states with repressive media regimes have been put to task to uphold article 19, but now both the WSIS - and the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) in its roadmap to the Information Society - are in effect proposing tighter state controls on the media, and giving governments powers to make rules that may subtract from article 19.

“In effect the WSIS will be opening up more ways for government control of the right to communicate,” John Barker, the African head of ‘Article 19’, an international advocacy group, said this week.

The WSIS draft, which could be passed in December, reads: “The existence of free and independent communication media, in accordance with the legal system of each country, is an essential requirement for freedom of expression and a guarantee of the plurality of information.”

Media workers want WSIS to declare that “freedom of expression, media freedom and editorial independence are central to any conception of an information society”. Tracy Naughton, the chairperson of the Media Caucus, said the overriding principle of WSIS on freedom of expression and media freedom should be Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights.

“Article 19 needs to be implemented, for all media regardless of the technologies used,” she said. “Security and other considerations should not be allowed to compromise freedom of expression and media freedom.”

The Geneva debate came at a time of increased reports of press harassment on the continent. In Gambia a state commission has asked journalists to register before
they practice. Six Algerian journalists were arrested early September over reports alleging corruption in high government circles. Sudan daily ‘Alwan’ was September 2 suspended for “provoking sedition”.

In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, several newspapers have been threatened with closure and journalists are often dragged to court for defamation. A new Swazi law proposes that journalists serve up to five years in prison if found guilty under the Secrecy Act’. And in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe’s government just confiscated computers and other equipment from ‘Daily News’, the only independent daily.

All these are actions against the assumed Nepad virtues of enlightened governance. But then, Prof. Guy Berger, head of Journalism and Media Studies at South Africa's Rhodes University, says Nepad only advocates the right to "responsible" free expression, also giving states the leeway to determine what is responsible and what is not.

Rather than giving states more powers to control the media and the freedom of expression, media workers want the WSIS to require states to make legislation to ensure the participation of all in the information society.

That would be made possible by laws that promote and defend the existence and development of free and independent media; encourage pluralism and diversity of media ownership and avoid excessive media concentration; recognise the specific and crucial role of public service broadcasting and community media; and transform state-controlled media into editorially independent organisations.

Civil society organisations on the continent are asking governments to guarantee freedom of expression in order to allow for better usage of the new technologies. The African Union’s "Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights" has a progressive document on free speech, which could work as a guide for policy makers. The Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI) adopted by the Organisation for African
Unity (OAU) following a series of meetings sponsored by the Economic Commission for Africa makes no mention of free expression.

Communication workers say the attempt to curtail freedom of
expression at the Information summit is a particularly worrying trend because it is being introduced at a time the world is embracing Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), including the Internet, one of whose democratising aspects is that it allows private online spaces. The summit and Nepad’s promulgations will bear both on traditional media like newspapers, radio and television, as well as new media like the Internet.

Access to private and safe spaces are essential tools for
facilitating dialogue, debate and sharing of information and
experiences. Hence, the Internet which provides the opportunity to network across geographical boundaries and to include isolated communities is important for democratic organising.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which links communication workers in much of the South, says: “People must be able to express opinions and ideas, and share information freely when using the Internet. The potential of the Internet to allow public participation in governance processes, at international, national and local levels, should be utilised to its full.”

In a July 2003 submission to the WSIS, civil society organisations urged governments to retain reference to the international bill of human rights as a whole and in particular to rights that make possible new platforms for community-based and people-centred communications.

In a bid to control what they deem illegal or harmful content, or to combat “crime” governments have also been devising policies which critics say diminish the democratising role of the Internet. The big problem is that such ‘information security’ policies tend to be overly broad, ambiguous and inconsistent with human rights instruments and principle; and often lend undue weight to ‘national’ or ‘sovereign’ interests, at times unnecessarily impinging on the rights and civil liberties of individuals.

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