The venue for Thursday's event, a conference center named after the publisher John S. Knight, was perhaps fitting after the forum's Tuesday town hall meeting at the White House featured significant references to press freedom. Addressing 115 of the brightest and most enterprising 20- to 30-something leaders in activism, business, health, innovation and media in Africa on Tuesday, Obama singled out, among others, a Botswana journalist (Itumeleng Ramsden) for inspiring young people with her popular radio show, and a journalist from Ivory Coast (Aminata Kane Epse Kone) for championing the cause of Muslim women on her radio station. In a Q&A session, the president mentioned press freedom while praising the ability of youth to challenge the status quo.
"In some of your countries, freedom of the press is still restricted," Obama said. "There's no reason why that has to be the case. There's nothing inevitable about that. And young people are more prone to ask questions, why shouldn't we have a free press?"
Bold and unprecedented, the administration's
approach to honor this ambitious Facebook generation (and there were numerous
references to the social networking
platform on Thursday, and not only from the participants), clearly raised
eyebrows outside the
by the New York Times' Adam Nossiter, Washington's approach was a
dramatic departure from France's recent gathering of leaders
of its former colonies during Bastille Day celebrations in July. The
keynote event of those celebrations was a military parade featuring African soldiers.
They marched on the Champs-Élysée along with French troops, and the sound of their
boots drowned out local and international civil society protests
rights and democracy concerns. French media quoted TV presenter Etienne
Leenhard of state-funded
In Washington however, the U.S. State Department engaged the participants in thematic focus groups such as leadership, entrepreneurship, social responsibility, interfaith dialogue, and even "Advocacy, Transparency, and Human Rights."
African governments dominate,
monopolize, or politically censor national public media, but in many countries,
government outlets are the only ones with the capacity to broadcast to the
entire population. This leads to the suppression of voices of civil society or
the opposition during election cycles. For instance, Welcom Romell Nzaba Nodjitolom, a human rights jurist from the
Bai Sama Gwenning
Best, the marketing manager for Liberia's Observer, a leading independent newspaper started by
his father, Kenneth Best--Liberia's best-known journalist and a pioneer of the
independent press in the Gambia--spoke to me about the need to educate security
forces in African countries to respect frontline reporters. DRC
Ngambashongo Anice shared his difficulties in finding fundraising partners to
support the activities of his journalism training and capacity-building organization
known by its French acronym as APIC. Then Sana Sarr, an unreserved IT
When I suggested that
perhaps we would know the answers to these questions by now if more people in