Attacks on the Press 1999: Africa Analysis

By Claudia McElroy
All over Africa, conflict continued to be the single biggest threat to journalists and to press freedom itself. Both civil and cross-border wars were effectively used as an excuse by governments (and rebel forces) to harass, intimidate, and censor the press–often in the name of “national security”–and in some cases to kill journalists with impunity. CPJ confirmed that in 1999 13 journalists were killed in Africa specifically because of their work–10 of them in Sierra Leone and three in Nigeria.

In January, Sierra Leone became the deadliest country in the world in which to be a journalist. (See special report). During their three-week occupation of the capital, Freetown, rebel forces brutally murdered at least eight journalists in the space of a few days. Rebel fighters reportedly made lists of journalists perceived as sympathetic to the democratically elected government. A ninth journalist was killed by a soldier of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG), and a 10th died in prison after the government denied him medical treatment.

In 1999 CPJ helped a total of five Sierra Leonean journalists whose lives were in imminent danger escape to safety.

The effects of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which started as a rebel insurgency in August 1998, continued to be felt across the entire region. In terms of press freedom, the government of President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was undoubtedly one of the most repressive in Francophone Africa, if not the entire continent. During the year, dozens of DRC journalists were arbitrarily detained, attacked, harassed, or threatened, which made independent reporting on issues such as the war or government corruption a singularly risky business.

The DRC conflict also attracted the involvement of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia (as allies of President Kabila) and Rwanda and Uganda (as supporters of Congolese rebels). The press was adversely affected in every one of these countries.

The government of President José dos Santos of Angola also qualified as one of the continent’s worst offenders against press freedom. When the country’s long-running civil war resumed at the end of 1998, the government effectively banned reporting on the UNITA rebel movement and its leader, Jonas Savimbi. A dramatic increase in the number of attacks on members of the press forced many Angolan journalists to live in a state of fear and self-censorship. This climate of intimidation, combined with lack of access to the UNITA rebel movement, persuaded some journalists to toe the government’s line and others to stop working altogether. Some journalists, however, fearlessly defied the threats and the dangers and remained outspoken in their criticism of the Angolan government and the armed forces. As a result they were exposed to concerted campaigns of harassment (as happened to William Tonet of the independent Folha 8 newspaper) or subjected to prolonged detention without charge (as in the case of free-lance journalist Rafael Marques).

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, faced with increasing criticism both at home and abroad over his governance and human-rights record, took an increasingly tyrannical attitude toward the country’s independent media. Draconian legislation was used to prosecute journalists, and there were even government plans afoot to strengthen such laws–including those concerning criminal libel. The most blatant attack on the press was the illegal arrest and detention in January of two journalists, Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, in connection with an article quoting unnamed sources who alleged that army officers had plotted a coup. Both journalists were severely tortured by government agents.

The other countries involved in the DRC conflict also suppressed press freedom, albeit to a lesser extent. In Namibia, the government threatened to ban a popular radio talk show that allowed people to air what officials called “nonsense” about the country’s involvement in the DRC. The authorities admitted that they deliberately withheld information about the conflict from the country’s media. In Uganda, three editors of The Monitor were arrested and charged with sedition in May for publishing a photograph of a naked woman being sexually abused by men in military uniform (officials vehemently denied that these could be Ugandan soldiers, claiming that they were either Congolese or Zimbabwean soldiers). And in Rwanda, the editor of the paper The Newsline was imprisoned in February after publishing an article that alleged corruption on the part of a senior Ministry of Defense official.

The apparently senseless, and intractable, war between Ethiopia and Eritrea also had a negative effect on media in both countries. Even though the number of imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia was considerably lower than in previous years, the country still held the dubious distinction of being Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists (eight remained in prison at year’s end). State propaganda about the war is pervasive in both countries, and access to balanced information virtually impossible. As a result, few journalists are able or willing to challenge the official government line; those who do so risk being arrested or put out of business.

Elections or the prospect of elections also had an adverse effect on media in a number of African countries. Even in Nigeria, where hopes ran high for a new era of democracy with the May 29 installation of a civilian government headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, many journalists expressed disappointment that true press freedom remained an ideal rather than a reality. While Nigeria’s abysmal press freedom record seemed truly a thing of the past, a number of repressive antimedia laws and military decrees remained in force, and their repeal was clearly not a priority for the new government.

In South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki won the June 2 presidential election, succeeding Nelson Mandela, some journalists expressed fears that journalists would suffer, since neither man had ever been a great friend of the national press. The national Human Rights Commission’s investigation into media racism was widely criticized as an attempt to stifle criticism of the ruling African National Congress party in the run-up to the elections. Nevertheless, South African journalists suffered far less harassment than their colleagues elsewhere on the continent.

During election campaigns, journalists reporting on the activities of opposition parties or supporters often risked harassment or arrest–as happened in Malawi and to some extent in Niger. Even in Mozambique, where the press freedom situation has improved remarkably in recent years, journalists faced problems before the presidential and parliamentary elections in December. RENAMO, Mozambique’s main opposition party, repeatedly tried to ban or limit the national media’s coverage of the election campaign, claiming it was biased in favor of the FRELIMO government.

Côte d’Ivoire was one country that saw a marked increase in the number of attacks on the press in 1999. These were caused principally by the government of former President Henri Konan Bedie’s apparent paranoia about any form of challenge during the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for October 2000. Following his allegation that opposition leader Allassane Outtara was a foreign national and therefore ineligible to stand in the elections, President Bedie increasingly clamped down both on Outtara’s Rally of Republicans (RDR) party and on any media suspected to be sympathetic to the RDR. Newspapers and broadcast media were censored, and journalists were detained and attacked. And in September, Abdoulaye Bakayoko, publisher of the pro-RDR newspaper Le Libéral, was shot dead under highly suspicious circumstances.

After President Bedie was ousted in a military coup on Christmas Eve, the new head of state, General Robert Gue•, promised to respect press freedom but promptly had two pro-Bedie journalists arrested.

Elections scheduled for 2000–including those in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zimbabwe–hold out few prospects for any significant improvement of the press freedom situation in those countries. And in countries still at war at the end of 1999, combatants often ignore international human-rights law, including the rights of journalists. Press freedom in those countries will probably continue to suffer in 2000.

At the same time, the courage and determination of many African journalists offers hope as they band together to fight repression and resist the constraints imposed on them. One such example was the establishment of the Alliance for Female Journalists in Sierra Leone, launched in November 1999 by journalist Claudia Anthony (whose personal account of the rebel occupation of Freetown can be found in the Sierra Leone Special Report on page 147). The main aim of the Alliance is to build capacity among female journalists through training and the improvement of professional standards. The organization hoped to begin monthly publications of women’s, children’s, and journalism magazines at the end of the year–a pioneering effort in Sierra Leone. In the DRC, the local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger worked tirelessly to document abuses and agitate for reform. And in Zimbabwe, journalists met in September to form the Independent Journalists’ Association of Zimbabwe. Its goal is to protect and promote the rights of Zimbabwean journalists in the private sector.

Claudia McElroy worked as a freelance journalist in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea from 1994 to 1997. Before that, she was a campaign assistant for Amnesty International in Côte d’Ivoire. She has her bachelor of laws from King’s College London and a certificate in education from the Northern College of Education in Aberdeen. McElroy has most recently been a television producer for Sky TV, London, and a freelance journalist in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. She joined CPJ in May 1999.