Attacks on the Press 2001: Africa Analysis

Silence reigned supreme in Eritrea, where the entire independent press was under a government ban and 11 journalists languished in jail at year’s end. Clamorous, deadly power struggles raged in Zimbabwe over land and access to information, and in Burundi over ethnicity and control of state resources. South Africa, Senegal, and Benin remained relatively liberal from a press freedom perspective, while corruption and fear pervaded newsrooms in Mozambique and Togo.

Almost a decade into the continent-wide democratization process, independent journalism has emerged as a powerful force capable of rooting out entrenched dictatorships and educating the masses about the responsibilities of elected governments. Consequently, leaders across the continent have devised new ways to deal with journalists who refuse to be silenced.

Some, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, have advanced harsh new laws to keep out foreign media and increase state control of the local press. Others, such as President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea and Charles Taylor of Liberia, have used illegal means to suppress independent criticism of their governments.

In 2001, no journalists were killed in Africa because of their work, despite continuing armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Somalia. But much of the fighting was low intensity, visiting less destruction on civilian populations and generating less media scrutiny than in the past.

Southern Africa was by far the continent’s most troubled region. On October 12, CPJ wrote to President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi, in his capacity as chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to highlight the region’s alarming pattern of state harassment and censorship of the media. The letter drew particular attention to Zimbabwe, where an unprecedented press freedom crisis erupted last year.

The Mugabe government of Zimbabwe, fearing defeat in elections planned for March 2002, has been linked with bomb attacks and other violence against news reporters.

On May 3, CPJ placed President Mugabe on its list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press. Mugabe was southern Africa’s fiercest oppressor last year, but he was by no means the only regional leader to turn on his country’s press.

In Swaziland, King Mswati III was only convinced to withdraw the obnoxious Decree No 2, which made criticism of the royal family and state officials a seditious offense, after Western powers threatened him with economic sanctions.

In Malawi, ruling party thugs beat news reporters, seized copies of private papers, and scared newspaper vendors off the streets. Even in relatively liberal Tanzania, police suppressed coverage of ethnic tensions while the Information Ministry banned a dozen publications for allegedly spreading AIDS due to their “pornographic content.”

Last year’s greatest disappointment was Mozambique, whose once-vibrant independent press grew afraid to speak out after the murder of the country’s leading journalist, Carlos Cardoso, in November 2000. In July, a CPJ investigative team found that Mozambican journalists are terrified at the possible consequences of reporting aggressively on the country’s numerous banking scandals, press scrutiny of which may well have led to the murder of Cardoso.

In Namibia, Zambia, and Angola, long-serving leaders restricted independent news media “in the national interest.” At year’s end, there was a showdown between journalists and government in Botswana, where a Zimbabwe-style Mass Media Communications Bill was up for debate. And in November, the SADC unveiled controversial plans to establish a southern African accreditation system for journalists, to be administered by appointees from regional governments.

In June, CPJ began aggressively reporting on Eritrea’s rough treatment of local journalists, revealing a tiny, highly dedicated private press and a militaristic regime fiercely bent on crushing it. In September, as international criticism of Afeworki’s dictatorship mounted, authorities simply outlawed the private press, jailed a dozen reporters, and forced others into exile.

In contrast, conditions for Ethiopian journalists improved slightly in 2001. Since CPJ completed a mission to Ethiopia in October, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made small but significant concessions to the private press, even though the country’s harsh press laws stood unchanged and at least one reporter was in jail at year’s end.

In all, 15 journalists and media workers were in jail in Africa as of December 31. The countries that jailed journalists were: Eritrea (11), Ethiopia (1), Rwanda (1), the Comoros Islands (1) and the DRC (1). Although no West African reporters were jailed at year’s end, historically liberal countries such as Senegal and Mali renewed old patterns of media repression. In 2001, government interference with the flow of information increased markedly in Togo, where longtime despot Gnassingbé Eyadema seemed more willing than ever to crush dissent.

While attempts to topple Côte d’Ivoire’s current government prompted it to detain reporters, no leader proved as volatile as Liberian strongman Charles Taylor.

As the United Nations prepared a sanctions regime against Liberia as a way to curb Taylor’s criminal activities, Liberian authorities jailed reporters for “espionage,” suspended news media for unpaid taxes, imposed strict regulations on foreign media, and imposed a news blackout on an ongoing rebellion in the north of the country. For his efforts, President Taylor was added to CPJ’s list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press.

Journalists in Guinea also faced increasingly muscular government censorship, while Sierra Leone, where 15 journalists have been killed since 1997, was relatively calm as the civil war wound down and the United Nations moved in to prosecute war crimes. Meanwhile, the year-old Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice, sitting in Lagos, Nigeria, adopted rules of procedure allowing it to challenge press freedom abuses and other human rights violations by member states.

Political and media life in the East African Community (EAC) was relatively uneventful last year. In central Africa, meanwhile, the new DRC government, led by Joseph Kabila since the murder of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, remained the region’s main violator of press freedom, although press conditions have improved there overall.

In Gabon, President Omar Bongo toughened his grip on power by outlawing critical media outlets. President Ange-Felix Patassé of the Central African Republic used a state investigation into an abortive coup to clamp down on a private press that was already polarized along ethnic lines.

In May, the shared perception that journalists in many central African countries face similar challenges inspired journalists to create the Central African Media Organization (OMAC), based in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, and led by 2000 CPJ International Press Freedom awardee Modeste Mutinga.

According to the African Development Bank (ADB), about 200 African regimes were violently removed from power between 1963 and 2000. Only one African head of state lost an election between 1960 and 1989. In contrast, 12 leaders lost elections between 1990 and 1999. Both the ADB and the World Bank acknowledge the important role that independent media have played in this new trend of peaceful political transitions. But Africa’s journalists, raised in societies where illiteracy is high and where many leaders squander public resources on weapons and personal follies, still need professional training along with backgrounds in public health, international trade, law, and other key disciplines.

Several African news organizations expanded their operations to other countries last year. In January, South Africa’s African Broadcast Network began beaming its signal into Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In December, TV Africa, a joint venture of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the African Media Group (AMG), started broadcasting free programs to more than 110 million viewers through a network of 39 affiliates operating in 23 African countries.

Yves Sorokobi is 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. CPJ’s mission to Ethiopia was partially funded by the Freedom Forum.