World Newspaper Congress Opens With Warning on Threats to Freedom

By: President Thabo Mbeki stressed the importance of a free and vibrant press Monday and voiced unease about imprisonment and abuse of journalists in Africa, but sidestepped an appeal to use his clout to end violations in Zimbabwe.

"The problem of media freedom around the continent is an important one as the media's role in informing and thereby empowering the people of Africa cannot be disputed," Mbeki said in an opening address to the annual World Newspaper Congress.

"Our continent has not escaped the effects of the tussle between media freedom and governance. There are some countries on our continent where journalists are in prison and this is worrying for all of us," said Mbeki told 1,600 editors and executives from around the world.

He said a vigorous press ? such as the one that has sprung up in South Africa since the end of apartheid-ear restrictions ? was played a pivotal role in development and voiced sympathy for the anger felt against governments who act with impunity against journalists.

But he remained silent to a plea by Gavin O'Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, to use his influence on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to end the gag on the press.

Southern African nations recently named Mbeki to mediate in Zimbabwe following the arrest and brutal assault of opposition leaders in March. Several journalists were also beaten.

Scores of journalists have been arrested, threatened and assaulted since sweeping media curbs were enforced in Zimbabwe in 2003. Four independent newspapers, including the only independent daily, have been shut down under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

"We readily recognize that the Mugabe regime sees fit to discount any legitimate commentary from the international community, but we hope that a fellow African nation like South Africa can actively encourage real progress and bring normalcy and true liberty to that country," O'Reilly said.

He said that freedom of the press was violated on a daily basis in "dozens of African nations." One of the main problems was the implementation of 'insult laws' which outlaw criticism of politicians and those in authority, and criminal defamation legislation.

Southern African publisher Trevor Ncube said that while editors in the west fretted about economic and technological challenges, newspapers in many developing countries faced "sheer political survival issues."

Ncube is a Zimbabwean who publishes one of South Africa's leading weeklies and who has endured numerous threats and attempts to strip him of his citizenship by Zimbabwe's government.

Worldwide, 110 journalists were killed in 2006, and 58 so far in 2007. He said more than 130 journalists were currently in jail, including 32 in China, O'Reilly said.

The newspaper association awarded its annual Golden Pen of Freedom prize to a Chinese journalist serving a 10-year prison sentence for revealing his government's orders to newspapers to censor their reporting of the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary.

Shi Tao was convicted of "leaking state secrets" for writing an e-mail about media restrictions in the run-up to the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2004. The e-mail was picked up by several overseas internet portals ? and by Chinese authorities ? and he was arrested.

The award was accepted by the mother of the jailed journalist, Gao Qinsheng, who said her son was "a direct victim of the shackles of press freedom."

"Even today, most Chinese know nothing about what happened that day. The Communist regime continues to prevent the Chinese media from talking and writing about it openly and honestly and will go to great lengths to silence any such revelations and to severely punish those who make them," said George Brock, President of the World Editors Forum.


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