The organisations have made the appeal through the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The request for the release of jailed journalists following the pandemic is specifically directed to Presidents Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria, Patrice Talon of Benin, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and Paul Biya of Cameroon.
The others are Presidents Idriss Deby of Chad, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Paul Kagame of Rwanda as well as Prime Ministers Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia and Saad-Eddine el Othmani of Morocco.
The move follows a recent open letter by CPJ to world leaders, pleading for the immediate release of all journalists imprisoned for their work.
Given that a staggering number of journalists held in jails across the African continent, the press freedom and human rights organisations have reiterated the CPJ call to the respective countries at this time of grave public health concern.
According to CPJ’s most recent annual survey conducted on December 1, 2019, there were at least 73 journalists in prisons in Africa, including 26 in Egypt, 16 in Eritrea, seven in Cameroon, four each in Rwanda, Burundi and Morocco, three in Algeria, and one each in Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
As of March 31, at least 11 of these journalists have been released from jails in Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, DRC, Algeria, Comoros, South Sudan, and Egypt, according to CPJ research.
The letter of appeal quotes Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states: “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health.”
These rights were extended to prisoners and detainees when the African Commission adopted the 1995 Resolution on Prisons in Africa, the organisations noted.
They further pointed out that, according to the World Health Organisation: “People deprived of their liberty and those living or working in enclosed environments in their close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 than the general population.”
For journalists jailed in countries affected by the coronavirus, the letter says freedom is now a matter of life and death. It adds that imprisoned journalists have no control over their surroundings, cannot choose to isolate, and are often denied badly needed medical care.
It says many of the journalists in question have been held in detention without trial for lengthy periods and are suffering from ill health exacerbated by underlying health conditions and overcrowded prisons, where they have contracted malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.
The press freedom and human organisations have underscored to the heads of state the need to release every jailed journalist in their respective countries and to protect the free press and the free flow of information “at this crucial time”.
Journalism must not carry a death sentence, the letter emphasizes.
The letter, written in English and French, is copied to African Union Chairperson and South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Apart from MCT, the list of media, press freedom and human rights organisations that have made the appeal jointly through the CPJ includes Union of Tanzania Press Clubs (UTPC), Centre for Human Rights & Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), International Press Institute (IPI), Kenya Correspondents Association, Kenya Editors’ Guild, Kenya Union of Journalists, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Right2Know (South Africa), and The African Editors Forum.