Clarence Page: Time to let freedom ring

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After leaders from more than 40 African countries gathered for President Obama’s historic summit, we should not forget that free speech and a free press are economic development issues, too.

That message emerged as an important theme in a panel on press freedoms that I was asked to moderate during the non-governmental events that led up to the summit.

The panel was cosponsored by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I happen to be a board member.

But I also thought about some of the Africans who were not there, especially those who were sitting in a prison somewhere for the alleged “crime” of doing their jobs as journalists.

Ethiopian photojournalist Aziza Mohamed, for example, had been in custody in the Addis Ababa police headquarters without charges since mid-July, when she was arrested while covering Muslim protests.

Nine other journalists, including some from a popular Ethiopian blogging collective called Zone 9 were jailed in mid-April under that country’s overly broad anti-terrorism law.

Ethiopia is the second worst jailer of journalists in the continent, according to CPJ, with at least 17 journalists incarcerated, including Aziza. Eritrea leads with 22, which is an estimate since the government won’t reveal their locations or conditions.

Egypt shocked the world when it sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in prison, again for doing their jobs.

In mid-July, a court in Swaziland sentenced editor Bheki Makhubu to two years in prison for articles in his magazine criticizing the kingdom’s chief justice.

An email to me from his wife, Fikile Makhubu, ended, “Please don’t allow the ink to dry up. Don’t take the pen away.”

With those tragedies in mind, the Africa summit reminded me of salesmen at a big auto show: They might not sell you a car but they want to alert you to the possibilities — and stir your imagination.

Africa offers many possibilities. The summit aimed to change the narrative built up by such bad news as the West African Ebola outbreak and terror against schoolchildren in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

Most of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa, the Obama administration points out. That’s partly because their development started so low. But huge investments by China in trade and infrastructure also spurred development as it seeks to become the dominant power on the continent.

I get that and largely applaud it. After visiting close to a dozen African countries, I know the continent to be much more than the world’s biggest charity case.

Many of its governments are like Senegal, Botswana, Namibia or South Africa, encouragingly transparent with robust economic potential, despite poverty problems.

But it is important for all governments to understand that freedom of speech, press and the Internet are good for development as well as human rights.

George W. Bush astonished the world and became a hero in Africa for launching an emergency AIDS relief plan in 2003. It has since spent about $60 billion and saved countless lives. Obama’s summit aims to build on that medical aid with economic trade.

Besides, African leaders need better examples than China for how freedom unleashes creative enterprise better than autocratic regimes do.

“American traditions of transparency, accountability, rule of law, [and] property rights are ingredients that are critical to unlocking Africa’s future,” Obama told The Economist.

The summit provided a historic stage on which to “announce” what already was widely known: close to $1 billion worth of new business deals and billions more in loan guarantees to U.S. companies. Much of that is directed at a signature Obama administration project, Power Africa, to electrify the continent.

But in the rush to develop African economies, the administration needs to avoid easing pressure of African governments to be accountable and defend human rights, including women’s rights and gay rights.

To its credit, the Obama administration excluded Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic from the summit for violations of human rights and accountability standards of the African Union. The administration also withdrew aid recently from Swaziland for rights abuses. Carrots and sticks matter. When we don’t approve of what other countries do, we should stop helping them do it.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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