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US-Africa summit urged to roll back threats to freedom

US President Barrack Obama and African leaders meeting at a breakthrough summit in Washington next week should commit to rolling back growing threats to freedom of expression on the continent, 15 rights groups said Friday.

Criminal and counterterrorism laws were being abused alongside restrictive media legislation and vague charges of endangering public security to limit free speech, the groups said in an open letter to the leaders.

The 15 signatories include the African offices of the International Commission of Jurists and Lawyers for Human Rights as well as women’s groups and civil society organisations.

Obama, whose election in 2008 as the first black American president sparked huge expectations in Africa, has invited 50 heads of state and government for a summit which will see the greatest ever concentration of African leadership in Washington.

While the three-day meeting will focus on trade and investment, the rights groups said the theme “Investing in the next generation” means that it should also address the role of civil society, women and youth in the development of Africa.

“Space for civil society in many countries is shrinking,” the letter said.

“Many governments are using a combination of direct threats, oppressive laws and state policies to undermine the work of independent media, human rights defenders, and others seeking to peacefully express their views.”

It notes that in countries such as Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Swaziland, and Uganda “the response to peaceful demonstrations has often been excessive use of force by state security forces”.

Other nations including Burundi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Gambia and South Africa are taken to task for seeking to limit independent media.

Egypt is singled out for the jailing of three Al-Jazeera journalists when they were found guilty of “reporting false news” after the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi last year.

“As part of their commitment to addressing security and development, participants at the summit must publicly condemn such actions and commit to upholding the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful demonstration,” the signatories said.

They also call on the leaders to take steps to eliminate the widespread discrimination against women in Africa which prevents their full participation in public life.