Attacks on the Press 2005: Africa Analysis

Lessons in Democracy, Pressure, and the Press
By Julia Crawford

Zimbabwe and Burundi, countries with very different histories, were among the dozen states in sub-Saharan Africa that held elections this year. In Burundi, the local media played a significant role in informing the public about the democratic process and signaling abuses by those in power. In Zimbabwe, however, the independent media have been so restricted by an increasingly repressive government that elections were no victory for democracy.

The gradual economic and political decline of Zimbabwe was foreshadowed by a clampdown on the media. Burundi's slow emergence from war and ethnic rivalry was heralded by the arrival of independent radio stations, which gradually became a voice for ordinary people and a force for change. No African country is like another, but for a continent trying to shake itself free of oppression, the lessons of Burundi and Zimbabwe are clear: There can be no democratic progress without a free media, and repression of the media is a first sign of democracy going off the rails.

As Burundians voted in a series of crucial elections in 2005, they had access to several independent radio stations informing them about the electoral process, discussing the issues, and allowing ordinary citizens to air their views. Radio stations brought the concerns of the people to the politicians and helped ensure that the elections were transparent.

In Zimbabwe, private radio stations are banned. Since the government closed the only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, in 2003, the propaganda-filled state media dominates domestic news coverage. The government further ensured that the opposition had little access to the media before the March parliamentary election. Zimbabwean media lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who received a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2005, said she believes government control of information is at the root of her country's problems. "If information cannot flow freely, and if people, whether in business or elsewhere, cannot get that information, I cannot imagine how the economic situation can improve," Mtetwa said.

Not surprisingly, the government of President Robert Mugabe was announced the winner of Zimbabwe's flawed parliamentary vote, with a big enough majority that it could push through changes to the constitution. In Burundi, a former rebel group unseated the transitional authorities, and the country gained its most representative government in more than a decade.

In both nations, journalists have shown remarkable courage in the face of attacks by government authorities and, in the case of Burundi, by rebels as well. In both countries, repressive laws remain on the books, and the courts cannot be relied upon to deliver justice. Weak economies and low media salaries pose a further threat to press freedom, as individual journalists are vulnerable to corruption.

Over the past five years, Mugabe's regime has waged war on the independent press, using repressive legislation to close newspapers and harass journalists. Burundi's leaders have not been friends of the media either.

Under former president Pierre Buyoya, media outlets were censored, and independent journalists were frequently harassed and imprisoned. As recently as June, a journalist was imprisoned for nine days and accused of "violating the honor and the privacy of the head of state" for reporting that transitional president Domitien Ndayizeye was depressed by his party's defeat in municipal elections. In July, police shut down Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), whose director, Alexis Sinduhije, won a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2004, in a standoff with authorities over election coverage.

So what were the factors at work in the 2005 polls? How did Burundi, an ethnic tinderbox with no history of a reliable independent media, do better than Zimbabwe?

Ironically, Zimbabwe seemed, until recently, to have the advantage in terms of institutional safeguards, including a strong, unified political opposition and an independent judiciary. Although there was no private radio, there was a professional and influential independent press, which was often critical of the government. But it was precisely the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that sparked a brutal and relentless government backlash against critics of the regime--starting with the independent press. Despite enormous pressure from Western countries, including sanctions, Mugabe's historic role as Zimbabwe's liberator from white rule helped him retain support within the region. Mugabe blamed the West, especially former colonial power Britain, for many of Zimbabwe's problems, and government control of the media helped him do this.

Unlike Mugabe, former Burundian president Pierre Buyoya enjoyed little support as a representative leader, either at home or within the region. Buyoya is a member of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, which makes up only about 14 percent of the Burundian population, and his source of power was mainly the Tutsi-dominated army. When Buyoya took power in a bloodless 1996 coup, neighboring countries imposed sanctions. Faced with a continuing rebellion by ethnic Hutu rebels, growing political opposition, and regional as well as international pressure, Buyoya was finally forced to sign a peace agreement with his political opponents in 2000. In so doing, he promised to reform the army and to help prepare the country for democratic elections. He also promised to step down in favor of a Hutu transitional president. Political crises came and went as deadlines were missed, and Buyoya looked as if he would refuse to implement his promises. But foreign and domestic pressure was sustained, and the peace process lurched painfully forward.

In both Zimbabwe and Burundi, the role of other countries within the region has been pivotal--especially that of South Africa. The regional powerhouse has considerable influence on both its neighbor, Zimbabwe, and Burundi, where former South African president Nelson Mandela mediated the 2000 peace accord.

Mandela helped maintain the pressure necessary to drive the peace process forward, and his country sent the first peacekeepers to Burundi, even before the United Nations would commit forces. This helped create a climate in which the independent media could grow, and the media in turn helped push the peace process forward. Accepting a CPJ award in 2004, RPA director Sinduhije said he believed Burundi was on the path to a future free of dictatorship and mass killings. "This is largely thanks to international pressure and the positive role that all the private radio stations have played in Burundi," he said.

In contrast, current South African President Thabo Mbeki has refused to publicly criticize Mugabe or lead regional efforts to censure Zimbabwe's human rights abuses. Mbeki has also failed to speak out against the relentless attacks on Zimbabwe's independent media.

Burundi's new democracy remains fragile, but the country's independent media--particularly the radio stations that have emerged in recent years--are increasingly self-confident. They have shown courage and solidarity in the face of attacks, and they have won some significant victories. For example, in 2003, when the government banned Radio Isanganiro and RPA for allowing a rebel spokesman on the air, other private stations announced a blackout of government news. The bans were lifted shortly afterward. When authorities closed RPA in July 2005, three media organizations launched a joint mediation attempt and met with the head of state. RPA was allowed to reopen shortly afterward, and a subsequent shakeup of the official regulatory body brought more representation for journalists.

As for Zimbabwe, that country's journalists have certainly shown courage, but many have been forced into exile by the brutality of a regime that continues to ride roughshod over the free press. It seems that only a change of heart by the authorities could improve the situation there. More outside pressure is needed if that is to happen any time soon.

Julia Crawford is Africa program coordinator.
February 16, 2006 11:58 AM ET |

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