Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Good tidings for African journalists

Gugulethu Moyo

“We needed it [this fund] back in 2002,” said Gugulethu Moyo, new director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, referring to the Mugabe government’s suppression of the Daily News eight years back.

The company owning the paper still sat with legal bills of $500 000 dollars (US — not Zimbawean!) dollars as a legacy of the fight, she explained.

At least that paper had been able to mount a defence. Other media houses have much fewer resources.

Moyo was speaking in New York on Tuesday at the launch of the Media Legal Defence Initiative — a new body that exists to give legal support worldwide in support of press. It is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

It’s really good news for Africa’s independent media in particular.

The MLDI pays for lawyers needed for journalists under attack, as well as for capacity-building so that the lawyers have the skills to defend them.

Also speaking at the launch was the Gambian Press Union’s Ndey Tapha Sosseh, who is living in Mali to avoid imprisonment by her country’s despotic leader Yahya Jammeh.

Describing how journalists suffered arrests and death threats in her country, she said there was only one overworked lawyer prepared to take up media cases “and he has security at home because he is at risk”.

Attending the launch was Modou Nyang, a journalist with the independent Gambian paper Foroyaa (“freedom”), in exile as a result of death threats. Famous editor Deyda Hydara was murdered in 2004 — probably by agents of the Gambian government.

The launch audience also heard input by David McCraw, legal counsel of the New York Times. He said: “Journalists and lawyers shouldn’t have to be this brave. Bravery shouldn’t have to be the first requirement for being in these professions.”

Veteran US media lawyer Floyd Abrams told the event there should also be international solidarity with judges who showed courage by ruling against governments that mistreat journalists.

He added that in countries where law was underdeveloped, judges could create media case law in progressive ways — as a result of trained lawyers drawing on international jurisprudence.

The MLDI will focus on strategic cases for litigation. But, says Moyo, it will also try to respond to as many needs as possible.

Priority will go to instances where journalists could face prison or crippling fines and where they are being harassed for investigative journalism and reporting on corruption.

Her priority as director is to raise the profile of key cases being backed by MLDI, to build resources to cover the costs and to translate its materials into several languages.

Kwame Karikari, Media Foundation West Africa, caught up with with exiled Gambian journalist Modou Nyang, at the MDLI launch
Kwame Karikari (left), Media Foundation West Africa, was able to catch up on issues with with exiled Gambian journalist Modou Nyang (right), at the MLDI launch