Attacks on the Press 2000: Africa Analysis

PRESS COVERAGE OF ARMED CONFLICTS CONTINUED TO STIR THE HOSTILITY of governments and rebel factions alike and claim reporters’ lives, but the prominent role of the press in the often-volatile process of democratization also brought unprecedented challenges to journalists working in Africa.

CPJ confirmed that in 2000, five journalists were killed specifically because of their work in Africa–a local reporter and two foreign correspondents in Sierra Leone, whose civil war has become the most dangerous beat on the continent; a city reporter in Somalia who was killed by robbers’ stray bullets; and an investigative journalist in Mozambique who was murdered by unidentified assassins.

Governments across Africa used obsolete, often century-old laws to suppress news about their shortcomings, shutting down newspapers and jailing journalists for such vaguely defined offenses as criminal defamation, distributing false news, endangering state security, and espionage. Certain governments have also tried to regulate the Internet, despite its relative newness on the continent and its extremely low penetration rate. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Post and Telecommunications Bill, currently awaiting presidential ratification, will give officials power to monitor and intercept e-mail communication in and out of the country in search of information that violates “state security.”

Yet there were important press freedom success stories in Africa last year. In Kenya, vocal media criticism helped persuade the government to shelve harsh proposed amendments to the Books and Newspapers Act. In Côte d’Ivoire, brave local journalists were in the forefront of the popular revolt that overthrew Gen. Robert Gueï’s military regime in October. And the investigative work of Chadian journalist Daniel Bekoutou helped convince a Senegalese court to prosecute former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré for torture, extra-judicial killings, and other gross human rights violations committed under his rule.

On May 3, CPJ named President José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola to its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.” At year’s end, Angolan authorities were pondering even harsher restrictions on the press, with proposed revisions to the Press Code that would impose sentences of up to eight years in jail for defaming the head of state. Until his death in January 2001, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a fierce opponent of press freedom. Journalists in the DRC were routinely harassed, beaten, arrested, threatened, and jailed after flawed trials on charges ranging from betrayal of the state to insulting the army. Authorities also banned some news organizations, ostensibly for tax evasion, and forcibly nationalized others.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe continued his crusade against the local independent media, which defied threats, police brutality, bomb attacks, and a flurry of defamation suits to denounce Mugabe’s complicity in violence against white farmers and the country’s involvement in the DRC civil war. The ruling ZANU-PF party also sought to assert control of the airwaves and Internet communications technologies through ad hoc and largely unenforceable legislation.

Even in Mozambique, long regarded as a model for press freedom in Africa, the November 22 murder of veteran investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso raised serious questions about the country’s commitment to freedom of expression. Moreover, a recent surge of threats and physical assaults against independent journalists and news outlets bodes ill for the country and the region at large.
Sierra Leone, where three reporters were killed in 2000 and 10 in 1999, remained the most dangerous place in Africa for journalists. The rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was responsible for most of the killings. On May 3, CPJ named RUF leader Foday Sankoh at the top of its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.” A week later, following the RUF’s kidnapping of some 400 UN peacekeepers, Sankoh was arrested and placed in government custody, pending trial for human rights abuses.

Although no other West African country approached the sheer awfulness of Sierra Leone last year, the rest of the region was deeply troubled. Even relatively liberal countries such as Senegal, Mali, and Benin trampled on journalists’ rights or were hesitant to repeal outdated laws that in many cases violate their national constitutions. Liberian president Charles Taylor was easily the region’s most volatile leader where the press was concerned, however. Irritated by international condemnation of his suspected gun-running and diamond-smuggling activities and local denunciation of his iron-fisted ruling style, Taylor banned news outlets, repeatedly threatened local media, and forced international journalists and human rights monitors out of the country.

Nigerian journalists did not fare much better, despite a successful return to democracy in May 1999 and the establishment of a Human Rights Commission to investigate crimes, including press freedom abuses, committed during decades of military rule. And during Gen. Robert Gueï’s 10-month military dictatorship in formerly stable, prosperous Côte d’Ivoire, soldiers raided newsrooms, confiscated reporters’ equipment, and tortured journalists with the general’s implicit sanction.

Under both Gen. Gueï, who was overthrown by a popular uprising in late October, and his elected successor Laurent Gbagbo, demonstrations were held throughout the year to protest allegedly biased coverage of Côte d’Ivoire by Western media, particularly Radio France Internationale and the BBC. Similar criticism came from Western sources. In June, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa, Alan Gelb, blamed the low level of direct foreign investment in Africa on reporting by Western media that portrayed the continent as a “center of misery and conflict.”

Africa’s economic misery and armed conflicts, however, are real. And local journalists who attempted to report on these problems were not always seen with a sympathetic eye. In the Horn of Africa, for instance, independent coverage of the Ethiopia-Eritrean border war was a particularly dangerous undertaking for nearly a decade. When the war formally ended with a peace accord in December, leaders of both countries admitted to the futility of the conflict, an observation that local journalists, many of whom were jailed for their pains, had been making for years.

Ethiopia is Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists, with seven still languishing in an Addis Ababa prison at year’s end. (Seven other journalists were detained for their work by other African governments: four in the DRC; one in the Central African Republic; one in Niger; and another in the Comoros Islands.) While CPJ did not record a comparably systematic crackdown on press freedom in Eritrea, the situation there looked bleak in other respects. Eritrean journalists faced overwhelming pressure, both state- and self-imposed, to support the war effort and spring to the country’s defense whenever its human rights practices were questioned.

In East Africa, Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, challenged by a new class of younger, media-savvy politicians and human rights activists, accused journalists of fostering tribal and religious hatred, threatened to ban vernacular broadcasting, and introduced harsh newspaper registration laws. But Moi’s outburst can only attract more unfavorable attention from journalists in Kenya and throughout the region.

In a highly unusual trend for Africa, meanwhile, many East African media organizations moved closer to merging their activities, capital, and audiences. Kenya’s Nation Group, a fierce critic of President Moi, acquired Uganda’s largest independent daily, The Monitor, and planned to launch Monitor Radio in 2001. Uganda’s Capital Radio launched the independent station Kiss FM in Kenya, and planned to expand into Tanzania and Ethiopia. Radio One Ltd. of Tanzania hatched plans for a pan-East African FM radio station, having been granted a frequency by the Uganda National Frequency Registration Board. The proposed station would broadcast from Tanzania’s Dar-Es-Salaam, with relays in Uganda and Kenya.

This emergence of regional media mirrors the steady economic integration of East Africa, a trend fostered by the East African Economic Community (EAC). Last year, EAC member states acknowledged the need for a regional media regulation regime. If implemented, such a regime could also make it harder for Moi and his fellow heads of state to control the press in their respective countries.

Journalists in other parts of Africa have also begun to push for regional and pan-African declarations of principles that would guarantee press freedom and force governments to update their press laws. In late November, for example, both the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Commonwealth Harare Declaration were criticized because they lack specific clauses to protect freedoms of the press, expression, and access to government-held information.

Meanwhile, community and rural radio stations have emerged as the media best suited to meet the information needs of a largely illiterate population. After Cameroonian authorities lifted a decade-long ban on private broadcasting, more than 30 community stations obtained broadcast licenses. Journalists and media activists in Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland, and Guinea-Bissau were pushing for comparable liberalization of the airwaves. According to the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), there were fewer than 10 community broadcasters in the entire continent in 1985 and 300 in 2000. The number is likely to surge in 2001.

Yves Sorokobi is the Africa program coordinator at CPJ. Adam Posluns and Wacuka Mungai are the Africa program researchers at CPJ. They contributed substantially to the research and writing of this section. Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director, wrote the analysis of Angola.

CPJ’s mission to Angola was funded by grants from the Open Society Institute and the Freedom Forum.