African Journalists Urged to Stop Bowing to Dictators

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Journalists in Africa have been urged to stop protecting despotic regimes and do more to champion citizens' desire for democracy.

"The media in Africa needs to be the pillar of truth, progression and democracy," Prof Freida Brown, vice-chancellor of the U.S. International University (USIU) in Nairobi, told African journalists here during a three-day conference organized by State Department.

Participants observed that in African countries where governments worked against the interests of the people, media were often recruited to support such rulers. Those journalists who refuse to do so are jailed and subjected to other forms of harassment.

Despite the difficulties, journalists were encouraged to promote policies that were good for the population in general, in that way helping citizens to make better political and economic decisions.

Some media organizations were accused of failing to recognize and promote national interests, aligning themselves more with elites than with the common people they were supposed to serve.

U.S. envoy to Kenya William Bellamy cited the situation in President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, saying African journalists should work harder to expose human rights abuses and economic malpractices in such countries.

"It is not the work of the media to make governments look good," he said.

Joseph Ondido of Kenya's Nation Media Group urged African media to "pull the public to where it believes the nation should be."

Other participants said Africa would benefit from its own, continent-wide news channel, free from the control of governments.

Such a network could help build common democratic values and help Africa to shape international issues rather than merely act as spectators, they said.

Joe Kadhi, a journalism teacher at the USIU, told African journalists to penetrate all arms of government and ensure that those in leadership positions were competent and honest. Where corruption and nepotism were found, they should be exposed, he said.

Nyakabi Kanyua of the International Commission of Jurist told journalists to resist governments that sought to muzzle them under the pretext of protecting "national security."

"We are seeing a trend where governments are confusing national security issues with regime security issues," she said. "The media should fight back, aware of this."

According to the latest media freedom monitoring report by Freedom House, media freedom abuse in Africa is largely related to political developments, with incumbent regimes feeling threatened by independent journalists.

It found the most significant declines in Uganda and Ethiopia where governments' fear of opposition electoral gains led to broad political crackdowns which encompassed the press.

Another watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, said that impunity associated with abuse of press freedom is "the general rule" in Africa.

The Paris-based organization recommended that the international community focus more on raising questions about press freedom, rather than defining solidarity with Africa only in terms of food and funding.

"Solidarity should also mean insistence on the rule of law. To close one's eyes to trampled freedoms, to get used to violence, become inured to political murders, is to approve them and accept that there are people deserving of justice and others deserving of oppression," Reporters Without Borders said in a report.

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