Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has thrown his considerable moral weight behind the Declaration of Table Mountain, the media’s call to African leaders to support a free press on the continent.
The declaration was issued by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and World Editors’ Forum in 2007 at the 60th session of the World Newspaper Conference in Cape Town. It takes its name from the world-famous landmark that towers over that city.
Since 2007 WAN has merged with IFRA ‒ the news-publishing industry’s research and service organisation ‒ to form WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
‘Clear message of change’
Now Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of South Africa’s most revered figureheads, has added his signature to this important declaration, bringing renewed attention to African governments under pressure to repeal repressive laws and allow an independent press to operate unhindered.
Tutu voiced his support for the campaign while delivering the closing keynote speech at the 2010 Highway Africa media conference in July.
On a continent whose progress has often been hindered by its own corrupt institutions, the Table Mountain declaration is a crucial step towards political, economic and social development. The document also urges leaders to release imprisoned journalists and stop persecuting them.
Tutu’s endorsement is expected to add fresh momentum to the campaign, which is reportedly gaining strength across the continent. The declaration is supported by the Stockholm-based Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, which works with WAN-IFRA to promote freedom of expression and media development.
Other organisations that have already signed up for the cause include Reporters Without Borders, the World Press Freedom Committee and the Media Foundation for West Africa. The South African National Editors’ Forum is also a campaign partner.
"The Archbishop's voice, added to those already committed to repealing insult and criminal defamation laws across Africa, will help deliver a clear message of change to those in power," said WAN-IFRA CEO Christoph Riess.
In his Highway Africa speech Tutu said that courageous journalists can play an important part in establishing a culture of truth on the continent.
"You, the media, have one of the most powerful instruments in helping our societies to value the truth,” said the cleric, known for his outspoken views on human rights. “If the powerful are doing what is unacceptable, you in the media must tell them ‒ you must not be willing to be bought off.”
Tutu added that journalism is a noble calling and must be practised with integrity. “When we go wrong and you don't tell us, I will be waiting for you in heaven,” he said.
He told journalists that one of their duties is to remind those in authority of their obligations. “We need you to remind us where we come from; we need you to remind us of the ideas that have driven us.”
Some governments did recognise the value of a free and independent press, while others didn't, said Advocate Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur to the African Union on freedom of expression and access to information. “We seem to be simultaneously taking a few steps forward and a few steps back," she added.
Tlakula, who delivered the opening address at Highway Africa, is vocal in her condemnation of African Union member states that don’t adhere to the media protection provisions in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. But she singled out South Africa and Ghana as two nations which are doing significantly better than many of their African neighbours in this sphere.
South Africa ranks joint 66th in the Freedom House 2009 Freedom of the Press survey, with a score of 30. Ghana comes in several places higher in joint 53rd place, with a score of 26. In comparison, the top country is Iceland, with a score of 9.
Download the Declaration of Table Mountain (PDF, 65kb).
African media in a global context
This year’s Highway Africa conference saw journalists, editors, and other media professionals from across the continent gathering in early July at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, for a packed three-day programme of workshops, seminars and panel discussion.
About 500 African and international journalists attended the conference, which gives media professionals a platform to debate and discuss issues that affect the African press. Like Tutu, many participants pledged their support for the Table Mountain declaration and are set to actively promote the campaign in their home countries.
The 2010 event was the 14th edition and took place under the theme African Voices in the Global Media Space. Journalists were encouraged to step up their interaction with the global media environment to ensure the impact of their work is felt beyond the borders of their countries.
A familiar call went out again to African journalists to use their work to counteract the often negative reportage by foreign media. Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor, speaking at the end of the first day’s proceedings, said: “The Times of London and the Washington Post are not going to do this on our behalf. It is up to us to tell the world our own stories."
Highway Africa took place alongside the second World Journalism Educators Conference, also held at Rhodes University.