Attacks on the Press 2002: Africa Analysis

Although the Kenya-based East African Standard, one of Africa’s oldest continuously published newspapers, marked its 100th anniversary in November, journalism remains a difficult profession on the continent, with adverse government policies and multifaceted economic woes still undermining the full development of African media.

At year’s end, 26 journalists were in prison in Africa for their work: 18 in Eritrea, two each in Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one each in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Niger, and Ethiopia. This is a stark increase from the end of 2001, when 15 journalists were in African jails. The jump is attributable mainly to Eritrea’s appalling record.

Also during 2002, overzealous riot police shot one journalist to death on January 12 in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Jimmy Higenyi was the only reporter killed in the line of duty in Africa in 2002, while 2001 was the first year in two decades when no journalists were killed there for their work. And despite Higenyi’s death, the trend may last, with African rulers under increasing pressure from donors and civil-society groups to end impunity and aggressively track down journalists’ murderers. This was the case, most recently, in Burkina Faso, where the December 1998 murder of editor Norbert Zongo unleashed waves of civil unrest; and in Mozambique, where widespread indignation over the botched investigation into the November 2000 killing of Carlos Cardoso, founding editor of the now defunct business daily Metical, could compromise the governing FRELIMO party’s chances to retain power.

In 2002, African journalists continued to garner public support at home and abroad. This situation has compelled certain African leaders, such as Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, who has long dismissed Ethiopia’s nonstate media as the “gutter press,” to acknowledge their role as government watchdogs. The creation of regional infrastructures to deal with press freedom issues is also advancing, while the press is helping to establish democracy in Africa.

Radio broadcasting remains the most effective way to reach people in Africa. Radio’s vital role in the flow of news and opinions has inspired media activists to intensify their lobbying of governments that still resist private broadcasting. In March, three years after Ethiopia passed a broadcast law, officials finally began issuing licenses to private radio station owners, leaving only three African countries–Angola, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe–with airwaves that are closed to private competition. Because of their curbs on the circulation of information and continued harassment and jailing of journalists, CPJ placed both Eritrea and Zimbabwe on its 2002 list of the “10 Worst Places to Be a Journalist.”

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, African journalists gathering in Pretoria, South Africa, endorsed the African Charter on Broadcasting, which was agreed upon at a global press freedom conference in May 2001. In October, the Banjul, Gambia-based African Commission on Human and People’s Rights added enforcing the broadcast charter to its roster of official activities. Aiming to serve as a blueprint for Africa’s broadcast policies and laws, the charter focuses on airwave liberalization and the effects of globalization on the continent’s emerging broadcast industry.

Also in October, the commission adopted a Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which stresses the “fundamental importance of freedom of expression as an individual human right, as a cornerstone of democracy and as a means of ensuring respect for all human rights and freedoms.”

But some observers have serious reservations about how the commission, a nonjudicial body, will enforce these measures. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, proposed by the anti-censorship group Article 19, for example, aims to serve as a benchmark for African governments’ compliance with Article 9 of the 1986 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which guarantees press freedom. But the declaration does not explain how its provisions can be enforced against delinquent governments. The declaration also aspires to boost free speech within the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) initiatives.

African heads of state, led by South African president Thabo Mbeki, developed NEPAD in 2001 to increase foreign investment in African countries. Tied to US$64 billion in promised investments from Western powers, NEPAD seeks to achieve a continent-wide growth rate of 7 percent by 2015 through democracy promotion and good governance. But in April, NEPAD’s clause on good governance prompted an intense row between some African leaders and Western governments seeking to punish Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe for his regime’s illegal land seizures and repression of the opposition and independent press. Nigeria and South Africa, encouraged by Western NEPAD backers to force Zimbabwe to improve its human rights record, proved unwilling to confront President Mugabe.

Officially launched in July, the AU is the latest avatar of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which led Africa’s independence from colonial rule. Modeled after the European Union, the AU is expected to work on poverty alleviation and market development. According to a November World Bank report, strong evidence suggests that a free press can help reduce poverty and boost economic development. However, the AU’s founding texts blatantly ignore the painful struggle of African journalists to secure more freedoms.

On August 12, CPJ wrote to AU secretary-general Amara Essy to voice concerns that the organization’s constitution fails to protect press freedom. “The language of this new constitution marks a significant setback for press freedom and freedom of expression in Africa, both of which were enshrined in the constitution of the OAU, the precursor to the AU,” CPJ wrote. At year’s end, the AU had still not replied to CPJ’s letter.

Meanwhile, the Internet continues to penetrate the continent slowly, despite restrictive laws hastily passed by many governments to control business and other opportunities connected to the technology. And African journalists and citizens appear eager to take advantage of the Internet. In February, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report concluded that Zimbabwe, with more than 100,000 citizens online, ranks among Africa’s foremost Internet users, although a Post and Telecommunications Act empowers the government to intercept e-mails in the name of “national security.” In December, Zimbabwean security agents accused journalist Lewis Machipisa of “spying for the BBC” after discovering an e-mail that he had allegedly sent to the British broadcaster, which has been banned from Zimbabwe since 2001. The accusation forced Machipisa to go into hiding.

According to the UNDP, 4 million Africans use the Internet regularly, with more than 50 percent of them in South Africa. “There are now 38 countries with 1,000 or more dial-up subscribers, but only 11 countries with more than 20,000 subscribers–Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe,” the report said. The UNDP cited inadequate telecommunications infrastructure as the main hurdle to the Internet’s further expansion.

There is hope, however, that more Africans will be able to join the global Internet community. On May 27, a group of African telecommunications experts gathered in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, to launch a US$639 million undersea fiber-optic cable. The 26,448 kilometer (16,200 mile) cable links 10 African countries with Europe and Asia.

Yet despite the remarkable gains of recent years, press freedom in Africa remains quite vulnerable. In September, West African journalists hosted the 10th annual meeting of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) in Dakar. IFEX, with more than 50 members (including CPJ and several African journalist groups), coordinates international press freedom advocacy. In assessing IFEX’s first decade of work, Cameroonian journalist Pius Njawe told the Dakar meeting that IFEX advocacy has forced some African governments to stop their most blatant repressions, such as sending police to close news outlets whose reporting angers authorities.

“But governments are quite clever,” added Njawe. “They have turned to other forms of harassment.” For example, instead of directly shuttering an offending newspaper, they now withhold advertising, creating financial hardship and sometimes even forcing a paper to close for lack of money. While there is a general consensus that the African press is freer than it was 10 years ago, “it’s difficult for me to say,” said Njawe. “In the past, the threat was an open threat. Now the threat is more subtle.”

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.