By Emmanuel Abalo (March 27th 2005)
"... My own experience with the media in Liberia in the 80‘s and 90‘s was such that it was the local church, international media organizations, Amnesty International and other human rights group that brought focus and elevated the plight of media, abuses and excesses of government. These organizations continue to be a voice for the voiceless...."
It is worth noting the recent unprecedented position taken by ECOWAS and the African Union(AU) to confront, head-on, the attempted military imposition of the son of the now deceased Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema. Clearly, it is now apparent that the cadre of leaders, some, still dictatorial, now see reason to embrace constitutional, democratic change and good governance as conditions for stability, national development and for universal acceptance into the progressive comity of nations.
The continent of Africa is mired and steeped in unbridled governmental corruption, ineptitude, developmental stagnation, disease and abject poverty for as long as anyone can remember. Shamefully, our own African leaders, regional groupings and international organizations like the OAU, AU, ECOWAS and others in the developed world, in times past, have failed to aggressively engage and hold African leaders and their governments to account for such poor governance, disregard for rule of law and human rights abuses. The common excuse cited is the "non-interference in internal affairs…" diplomatic lingo.
The Cold War between the East and West was fully exploited by greedy African leaders who were all but ready to personally enrich themselves with whatever aid and money offered to them for their support of the super powers.
In recent times, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to his credit, has undertaken and African Initiative "to get developed countries to tackle the scourge of AIDS and provide debt relief to poor African countries in an effort to address the deteriorating and widening economic, political and social divide which is shredding Africa." Interestingly, some African leaders are again shamelessly hinging their commitment to democracy and respect for human rights on debt relief as if the international community is obligated to reward them for their failed policies and greed over the years.
The wave of coup d'etats in the 70's and 80's in Africa have become a non acceptable practice of the past as the international community is no longer recognizing or supporting the violent change of government or imposition of leaders as a way of governance. I would venture to say that the position of ECOWAS and AU not to recognize the unconstitutional accession to power in Togo or elsewhere is the result of the proven fact that the products of such practice are instability, insurgency and its spread as have been seen in the West African sub region.
Additionally, according to the introductory section of the U.S. State Department just released 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, " …In noteworthy elections in Africa, the incumbent political parties of Ghana and Mozambique gained re-election in processes that were judged generally free and fair. Sierra Leone held its first local government elections in 32 years, although there were irregularities in some areas. In Burundi, concern focused on the delay in holding elections and the progress of the country’s transition to democracy. The Transitional Government failed to hold the local and national elections that are stipulated by the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, and at the end of the year it also delayed indefinitely a referendum on a draft constitution also prevented the holding of elections there during the year and helped deepen the country’s political crisis.In Rwanda, greatly circumscribed political rights were further limited when leading human rights organizations were either shut down or effectively dismantled. The action was justified as part of a campaign against "divisionism," according to a government report that accused human rights groups, journalists, teachers, and churches of promoting an "ideology of genocide.”"
In furthering this argument, the logical question again is why hasn’t the AU and ECOWAS boldly supported the extradition to Sierra Leone former Liberian rebel leader and President Charles Taylor to answer charges of war crimes? Infact, lets begin the count-down as of now on how long it will take ECOWAS and the AU to officially call for the extradition of Mr. Taylor.This argument pre-supposes then that in order to show their commitment to improving the lot of their respective countries and people, a greater percentage of African countries budget and resources must be apportioned to provide for education, health care and infrastructure development other than the purchase of arms and elaborate defense programs.
Here is an example of military expenditure by some African countries as reported by Global Security.org:
||$4.04 billion FY99/00
||$1.87 billion FY99
||$1.79 billion FY01
||$1.3 billion FY99/00
||$1.2 billion FY97
||$374.9 million FY01
||$350.6 million FY01
||$137.6 million FY01
||$127.7 million FY01
||$40.1 million FY01
||$35.2 million FY01
||$21.9 million FY01
Clearly, the ordinary African people have been short changed when you look at the military expenditure by African governments.
Attacks On the Media in Africa
Today, for example, the media in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa are being strangulated, attacked and abused by government and no African leader has the courage to speak up against such excesses.
My own experience with the media in Liberia in the 80‘s and 90‘s was such that it was the local church, international media organizations, Amnesty International and other human rights group that brought focus and elevated the plight of media, abuses and excesses of government. These organizations continue to be a voice for the voiceless.
On the occasion of World Press day in 2004, a UNESCO CREDO official was quoted as saying:
“…in this context the greatest threat to the media and individual journalists in Africa remains the legal and institutional framework for media law and practice. Criminal defamation laws, sedition and insult laws, absence of freedom of and access to information, illegal licensing of media outlets and journalists, and systematic intimidation is still being used to attack the media, undermine democracy and pave the way for conflict which in turn, further endangers the media.
In the past 12 months, there have been two hundred and forty known cases of attacks on the media and journalists in Africa. In other words, the media in Africa suffers an attack from the authorities, security agents or powerful interests every one and half days. This state of affairs is
disgraceful, a threat to democracy and simply cannot be allowed to continue.
In the last quarter alone, journalists have been imprisoned on defamation and related charges in several countries including Côte d'Ivoire, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Benin. In February, the Zimbabwean Supreme Court upheld legislation that allows the government to decide who works as a journalist and criminalizes those not approved by the government. In January the Kenyan authorities embarked on a mass seizure of tens of thousands of copies of so called illegal publications and in Eritrea ten journalists remain in jail for the third year."
And so, I challenge African leaders and their continental groupings to go further in condemning and repealing draconian and suppressive media laws which stifle freedom of the press, freedom of speech and instead enact laws that promote stability, democracy and national development in their respective countries. After all, at the end of the day, leaders will come and go but the media and the people will always thrive.
About the author:
Emmanuel Abalo is an exiled Liberian journalist, media activist and human rights observer. He served as a former News Director of the erstwhile Catholic owned ELCM Community Radio and later with the Liberian Broadcasting System (ELBC). He is the former Acting President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), . Mr. Abalo presently resides in Pennsylvania, USA and works as an analyst with CITIGROUP, North America.