Press freedom is a cornerstone of our democracies

On the occasion of the 26th World Press Freedom Day, celebrated in Addis Ababa on 2-3 May and jointly organized by the Ethiopian Government, the African Union and UNESCO, it is essential to recall that this day finds its origin on the African continent. It was indeed the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 on the struggle for pluralism and freedom of the media that motivated the United Nations two years later to proclaim May 3 as World Press Freedom Day.

More than ever, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a particular resonance in Africa: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

African media experienced an unprecedented growth in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and democratization. This spectacular progress is explained by the rise of a significant movement that has fundamentally led to major institutional reforms such as the creation of various African regulatory bodies and media observatories. The protest movements and the multi-party system have also led to political, socio-economic and institutional transformations, but above all to the rethinking of the role of the media in the countries’ development processes.

This explosion has also taken on a new dimension with the digital age. Information websites have spread everywhere, from Senegal to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), helping to strengthen the “fourth power”. A decisive counter-power in building public opinion that counts, as can be seen from Algeria to South Africa, where leaders are being held accountable for their actions in their countries.

In addition to the place now given to whistleblowers, who have been in Kenya with the Uhashidi open source software ahead of the rest of the world, it is another narrative about itself that the continent has appropriated. A sign of the times: the same dynamic has gripped the capitals of the western world, where websites and television channels dedicated to Africa have sprung up, with a coverage that is both critical and constructive. 

World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated this year in a capital that has become highly symbolic. Ethiopia made a spectacular leap in 2018 in terms of freedom of expression. The country has moved up 40 places in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by the French NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Journalists and bloggers can relay criticisms addressed to the authorities without being disturbed. 

The thousand participants who gathered in Addis Ababa to discuss this year’s theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalists and Elections in Times of Disinformation”, spoke out against the role of social networks and “fake news” in information – a global trend. Reference was made to the persistent obstacles to freedom of information, including the cuts to Internet access in some countries during elections, such as in Benin during the recent parliamentary elections and in the DRC last December.

For this reason, the media environment is still today characterized by many challenges that do not always allow journalists to work in a professional, free and independent way.