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Journalism is not a crime

Three journalists were convicted of subversive acts by an Egyptian court this past week and sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail. This subversion is, in fact, journalists simply doing their jobs. The plight of the three has received international attention.

But less attention has been given to journalists jailed and under fire in the rest of Africa. In Swaziland, editor Bheki Makhubu and rights activist Thulani Maseko will already have spent 105 days in jail when they appear in court on Tuesday on contempt charges.

In Zimbabwe last week, the editor of a state-run newspaper, Edmund Kudzayi, was arrested a week after President Robert Mugabe accused Information Minister Jonathan Moyo of hiring journalists sympathetic to the opposition.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 1 2013, there were 211 journalists imprisoned around the world. Now there are more.

In Africa, Eritrea is the biggest jailer of journalists, with 22 believed to have been imprisoned since the state’s 2001 decision to close all independent newspapers. “A decade later,” says the CPJ’s Sue Valentine, “Eritrean authorities had yet to account for the whereabouts, health, or legal status of the journalists, some of whom may have died in secret detention.”

In Ethiopia, seat of the African Union, seven journalists were jailed on December 1 last year. This number more than doubled when the “Zone 9” group (six bloggers and three journalists) were arrested in April. They have not yet been officially charged. Eskinder Nega is serving an 18-year sentence under Ethiopia’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws. Reeyot Alemu, serving a five-year sentence, has breast cancer but is not receiving adequate treatment; neither is another jailed journalist, Woubshet Taye, who has a kidney ailment.

Such persecution violates any international standard of human rights. Freedom of expression and the media are inalienable elements of democracy and open societies; journalists are essential watchdogs when it comes to abuses of power. Regimes that jail and harass journalists for doing their job expose themselves as undemocratic and despotic.

We need more such journalism, not less.

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