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UK minister for Africa: Media freedom is the heart of democracy

OPINION
By James Duddridge | May 3rd 2021

On World Press Freedom Day, I would like to thank the Kenya Editors’ Guild, and its President, Churchill Otieno for the chance to speak at this important event.

It is my pleasure to be speaking to other media professionals and organisations across East Africa.

Not only is this a vitally important region for the UK, but it is great to see journalists across borders standing together in solidarity, sharing expertise, and sharing ideas.

I hope to meet many of you on my future visits to the region when the Covid-19 situation allows.

As you all know, media freedom is the beating heart of a functioning democracy.

All of us are committed to upholding and championing such values. Freedom of expression, through a free and responsible media, is central.

We recognise that countries with a free press enjoy more stability and less civil unrest.

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A free press forms a foundation for economic prosperity, social development, for more open and inclusive societies.

The open exchange of information allows economies to flourish. There is a link between press freedom and higher GDP. Where press freedom thrives, so does social equality at home, at school, and in the workplace.

When we support free media, we support women, we support minority groups and we support the most vulnerable in our societies.

We need an independent and sustainable media, with laws, policies, and professionals to serve this. We need journalists to be safe in their endeavour, working without fear of interference.

And we need a society that needs reliable and credible media, to help tackle the proliferation of disinformation, which we sadly see so much of in these times.

We know that media freedom – and too often, individual journalists themselves – are under attack. We have worked hard on this issue, but we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal now.

We must defend and promote a free and fair global media, for all our sakes. Two and a half years ago, with our Canadian friends the UK launched the Media Freedom Campaign. Since then, we have brought together 47 countries through the Media Freedom Coalition, to advocate for greater freedoms and call out and sanction those who abuse journalists.

Despite the considerable challenges of the past year, we have been working through the Coalition and through our partners, including UNESCO, to improve the safety of journalists and fight against impunity for the crimes committed against them.

The Global Media Defence Fund has supported over 40 projects so far, mainly in Africa. The projects are supporting legal clinics, lawyer networks and pro-bono mechanisms, and they are moving against laws that harm or limit media freedom.

The UK is also supporting media freedom through Official Development Assistance to the media sector in a wide range of developing countries.

The UK is consistently in the top five aid donors to the media sector globally. We provided £115 million in Official Development Assistance on media and free flow of information in 2019.

We will also champion media freedom through our G7 Presidency this year, to encourage the international community to focus on this vital cause.

I want to touch on some of the work we do with many of you in this region. There are many more but I wanted to highlight a few.

In Kenya, our High Commissioner has been building a support network of female journalists.

Our elections programme has a component on media monitoring, on elections reporting, monitoring hate speech, and supporting the elections commission in their media outreach.

In Uganda, we have held conferences for journalists on the challenges facing the media, media ethics, fact-checking, and fake news.

In Sudan, the UK is supporting the media sector as the country moves through transition. We have been running a project which empowers the media to interrogate the economic transition and communicate what it means to Sudan’s people.

Finally in Somalia, one of the most challenging places for journalists in the world, we have supported the training of journalists through UNESCO.

We are working with six radio stations to improve the quality of their programmes, and we have helped the media school at Hargeisa University to improve its curriculum.

Before I conclude, I want to pay tribute to your tireless work as a journalist in challenging and changing times.

Challenging and changing times made even harder by the economic disruption of Covid-19. Many have been reporting from the front lines of this health crisis, and too many have faced censorship, intimidation, or violence.

We as politicians may not always like what the media has to say, but it is a vital part of a free and open society. We salute you for what you do and are here to support your work.

-Duddridge is the UK minister for Africa

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