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Africa Update: Taylor Extradition, Ethiopian Journalists

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Earlier this week, I talked with NPR special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The newly elected president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is calling for the extradition of the country's former president Charles Taylor from Nigeria.

Taylor, among other things, is accused of being a gun runner in the disastrous civil war in Sierra Leone. More from Charlayne Hunger-Gault on the significance of the extradition's struggle.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, reporting:

Well this is one of the open wounds of, in fact, the whole region. I mean, Charles Taylor is a descendant from that elite group of people who, Americans who went to Liberia to set up a free country. And you know, they were the founders of modern, of Liberia back in the 19th century, and they're called Americo-Liberians, but Charles Taylor is also called a warlord and a murderer. He is accused of backing rebels from the notorious revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. I'm sure that most of our listeners heard about or saw or read about the sort of notorious human rights violations that took place during that conflict. They tortured, they raped. And I guess the thing that is the awful signature of that conflict is of the women and children, little babies, and men as well, whose limbs were chopped off by these rebels.

And these are people Charles Taylor is accused of supporting from 1991 to 2002. And so now, the United Nations backed war crimes tribunal wants him tried on 17 counts of war crimes. The tribunal wants to bring him to Sierra Leone and have him stand accused and defend himself.

CHIDEYA: What's the position of African leaders, including Nigeria's president Obsanjo?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, initially, Nigerian president Obsanjo offered Taylor asylum in his country Nigeria, but more recently, he has been in conversations with the leaders around the continent to in fact arrange Taylor's return to Liberia. He hasn't definitely said he's going to do it, but he's moved closer to doing it than when he first accepted Taylor in his country.

CHIDEYA: Well, we'll definitely keep an eye on that story. But we want to move to the other side of the continent, East Africa. You were recently in [unintelligible] Ethiopia on a mission for the Committee to Protect Journalist. Now, I understand that some journalists were charged with genocide. How did that happen, Charlayne?

HUNTER-GAULT: I'm a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. And for those of you who don't know, it's an organization that monitors the press around the world and advocates for press freedom, interceding in countries where governments are not committed to that value. Now, Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi insists he is committed to a free press. I met with him for two hours. And the prime minister told us that relations between the government and the private press were now just poisonous.

Now, this whole atmosphere is the result of a rest of scores of opposition leaders and journalists in June and November. Some 80 people died because of clash street protests that turned violent. And the government blamed the demonstrators, political opposition parties and the media, and accused the journalists of being agents of the opposition, charging 14 of them with treason, trying to overthrow the constitutional order, and inciting genocide. Now, those are charges which carry the death penalty.

And I visited some of the journalists in prison. I mean, the government did in fact open up to us. They allowed us to go to the prison. And yet the journalists are there being held without bail, and they all insisted on the innocence. They say that they are often viewed as mouthpieces of the opposition because the government won't talk to them. So the only people they report on is the opposition. That's their side of the story. And we talked to the prime minister about it and we pleaded with him to allow all of them to go free. But especially pregnant journalists who--two pregnant women, and one at least has been released on bail. And we also got a pledge from the prime minister that all of these people would have their day in court and fair and proper trials.

Let me hasten to say that they are very few private papers operating in Ethiopia. The rest, as well as radio and TV are government controlled. And while the government recently granted licenses to two private radio stations, they're not up and running yet.

CHIDEYA: So is there any good news coming out of the continent this wee?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, actually, we can stay right there in East Africa, because on Wednesday, some of the charges were dropped against some of the opposition leaders, some of those most serious ones, like genocide and threatening to overthrow the constitutional order. And on the journalistic front, we don't know yet how many of the journalists that we visited with and knew about have been released, but we know that some of the charges were dropped -- well, actually, all of the charges were dropped involving five journalists who were being tried in absentia. They were employed by the voice of America. And I think that they're back in the United States.

So that's a bit of goods news. And as we told the prime minister, we're not there to beat up on him or to necessarily take the side of the journalists, but our interest was in the whole democratic project. Because Ethiopia, like many countries on the continent now, are in the first baby steps of their democracies, and we want to see those succeed, and of course to have them succeed there has to be a free press.

CHIDEYA: That's a great not to leave it on, Charlayne. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is NPR's special Africa correspondent. She joined us from South Africa. Thank you for joining us.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently left her post as CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, which she had held since 1999, to pursue independent projects. Before joining CNN, she worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for NPR from 1997 to 1999.
Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.
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