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United States president Barack Obama should use his visit to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, beginning June 26, 2013, to support besieged media outlets and independent groups across the African continent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Independent media and nongovernmental organizations in much of Africa are increasingly under threat from government crackdowns, Human Rights Watch said. In his 2009 speech in Accra, Ghana, President Obama spoke about the importance of civil society and independent journalism to democratic societies. While Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania generally allow media and nongovernmental groups to operate freely, other African governments severely limit them.

“President Obama should recognize the courage of African journalists and activists who speak the truth in the face of threats and reprisals, and call on his African allies to do the same,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He should make clear to African leaders that the media and activist groups are critical for development, and should be embraced.”

Independent media have come under increasing threat in many Africa countries, Human Rights Watch said. In the Horn of Africa in recent years, dozens of journalists in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia have fled targeted attacks and politically motivated prosecution. Since 2011, Ethiopia has used its counterterrorism law to prosecute at least 11 journalists.

A new media law in Burundi dramatically erodes freedom of expression. It undermines protection of sources, limits subjects on which journalists may report, imposes fines for any violations of the law, and sets education and professional requirements for journalists.

In South Sudan, security forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained journalists and editors over the content of their reporting. In Uganda, police recently ignored a court order to reopen media organizations that had been forcibly shut down for 10 days during a politically motivated police search.Partisan application of Uganda’s media and regulatory laws and closures of radio stations curtailed independent debate leading up to the 2011 elections, particularly in crucial rural areas.  Since the March 22, 2012 coup in Mali, attempts to suppress the release of information have intensified, and appear to form part of a wider crackdown on Malian journalism.

In South Africa, the Protection of State Information Bill, known as the “secrecy bill,” remains a major concern in light of its restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and democratic accountability. Ever since the bill was introduced in March 2010, and despite recent amendments, it has been criticized as inconsistent with South Africa’s constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations.

Although civil society is vibrant and growing in some African countries, many governments are increasingly hostile when it comes to respecting rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders, and other civil society organizations operating in highly limiting political environments such as in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe, often face serious security risks.

In Ethiopia, passage of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and other oppressive laws have compelled the country’s most important human rights groups to substantially scale down operations, or remove human rights activities from their mandates. Some organizations have closed entirely, while several prominent rights activists have fled the country due to threats. The government has frozen the assets of the last two remaining human rights groups – the Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, the leading women’s rights organization in Ethiopia.

The Rwandan government’s hostility towards human rights organizations, as well as threats and intimidation of human rights defenders, have greatly weakened civil society and ensured that few Rwandan groups feel comfortable speaking out publicly. Systematic violations of freedom of expression remain a dominant concern in the country.

In Zimbabwe, the police have carried out a campaign of politically motivated abuses against activists and organizations. In the past six months, police also carried out raids or opened investigations into a number of well-regarded organizations, including the Zimbabwe Peace Project and Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.

Obama should also use his visit to Senegal to underscore the importance of justice and accountability across the continent, by focusing on the court established to prosecute Hissène Habré for political killings and systematic torture during his presidency of Chad. His trial in Senegal will be the first in modern history in which the courts of one country try the leader of another for alleged grave crimes under international law.

If the trial is fair, effective, and transparent, it will contribute to ending the cycles of abuse and impunity that have marred so many African lives, Human Rights Watch said. The Habré court could also set a remarkable precedent in showing how African courts can contribute to good governance and the rule of law.

While in South Africa, Obama should focus on the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe, given the leadership role of the South African president, Jacob Zuma, at the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The regional group is charged with overseeing implementation of the power-sharing agreement between the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Obama’s visit is well timed to encourage SADC to press for vital democratic and human rights reforms in Zimbabwe that have not yet been achieved, particularly in light of President Robert Mugabe’s recent decree setting July 31 as the election date.

“President Obama’s visit should highlight Africa’s accomplishments, but his trip needs to be about more than that,” Bekele said. “He should stress the message that promoting respect for human rights is essential for Africa’s long-term development.”


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