Attacks on the Press 2003: Africa Analysis

Although the number of journalists in prison in Africa at the end of 2003 was lower than the previous year, African journalists still faced a multitude of difficulties, including government harassment and physical assaults. Many countries in Africa retain harsh press laws. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, some countries have also moved to introduce tough antiterrorist legislation, which journalists fear could be used to stifle civil liberties, including press freedom. For example, Uganda, which faces a rebellion in the north, used its antiterrorism law in 2003 to shutter a radio station for more than a month.

Two journalists were killed in Ivory Coast, and another was shot to death while reporting in Somalia. Nineteen journalists were in prison for their work at year’s end, down from 26 in 2002. Seventeen of them were imprisoned in Eritrea, which has silenced its entire independent press corps. The regime in Zimbabwe continued its efforts to do the same, closing the country’s only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, and banning much of the foreign press.

When Radio France Internationale’s Jean Hélène was killed by a police officer in Ivory Coast on October 21, it came as a shocking reminder of the risks that journalists face. The Ivoirian government launched an inquiry, and on January 22, 2004, the officer was convicted of killing the journalist. Swift action to bring Hélène’s murderer to justice was a welcome contrast to the usual pattern in Africa, where all too frequently journalists have been killed with impunity. For example, an investigation into the 1998 murder of independent journalist Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso was still ongoing at the end of 2003, having produced few results.

In a rare case of a journalist’s murderers being brought to justice, a Mozambican court sentenced six men to lengthy prison sentences for the November 2000 murder of journalist Carlos Cardoso. However, many local journalists believe that the masterminds of Cardoso’s killing remain at large. During the trial, several of the defendants said that the president’s eldest son, Nymphine Chissano, had ordered the journalist’s murder. Chissano has denied any connection to the killing.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ included Eritrea and Togo on its list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.” Eritrea, which has been Africa’s leading jailer of journalists since 2001, was featured on the list for the second year in a row. During the last three years, Togolese authorities have ruthlessly harassed and jailed journalists and censored publications that criticized President Gnassingbé Eyadema, who was re-elected in 2003.

Unfortunately, Togo was not the only country where the prospect of elections caused repressive regimes to tighten the screws on the independent press. It was also an election year for Rwanda, where the editor of the only independent newspaper was jailed for a month after reporting that former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu would run against the incumbent, Paul Kagame. The paper had also printed a satirical cartoon implying that Kagame would decide the election’s outcome. In Cameroon, where President Paul Biya faces elections in 2004, authorities have moved against broadcast media that criticize the government. In Guinea, where incumbent President Lansana Conte was declared the overwhelming winner of polls that the opposition boycotted, officials banned foreign magazines that ran articles questioning the status quo.

Elections also occurred in Nigeria, where the press, which is relatively free, exercised self-censorship during the polling out of apparent concern for political stability. Thus, the widespread fraud, irregularities, and voter intimidation alleged by the opposition and election observers were not highlighted in the Nigerian media.

Many African countries retain legislation that allows them to bring criminal charges against journalists, and some have used this to crush dissent. For example, a journalist was jailed in Niger after reporting on government malpractice. And in Sierra Leone, the critical daily For Di People was closed by a series of lawsuits, while its editor faces a criminal trial that could result in a prison sentence.

Local and international press freedom groups continued to lobby for the decriminalization of press offenses. But countries such as Togo, Zimbabwe, the Gambia, and Ethiopia have moved to introduce harsh new press laws that boost, rather than reduce, authorities’ powers to clamp down on the press. This is also the case in Somaliland, which claims independence from Somalia, although it is not internationally recognized. Ethiopia’s government has responded to journalists’ criticism of draft press legislation by consulting with them, but at year’s end there was little evidence of transparency in the process, and authorities had suspended the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, which was one of the most vocal local opponents of the draft law.

Even countries such as Senegal and Kenya, hailed as examples of democracy, have exhibited worrying trends. In October, Senegal’s government expelled a Radio France Internationale correspondent, accusing her of “tendentious” reporting on the rebellion in the southern Casamance Region. Kenyan authorities brought criminal charges against a journalist from the country’s oldest newspaper, the East African Standard, after it printed excerpts of leaked confessions in a sensitive police inquiry.

Some of these attacks on the press have captured the headlines, but many other stories of daily harassment and intimidation have not. Local journalists in war-torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Central African Republic, Burundi, and Somalia face constant danger while trying to cover the news. The governments of Rwanda and Gabon have been conducting campaigns of censorship and harassment against the independent press, as have authorities on Tanzania’s semiautonomous island of Zanzibar.

Although the press in mainland Tanzania is relatively free, the government of Zanzibar in November shuttered the island’s only independent newspaper, which had been running articles critical of the government. Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea drew only minimal international attention when it jailed one of the few independent journalists in the country.

African governments frequently mention ethnic tensions and “irresponsibility” of the press as reasons to retain draconian laws against press offenses. They often cite the example of Rwanda, where media such as Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines helped to fuel the 1994 genocide.

In December, the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted three Rwandan former media executives of genocide, conspiracy and incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity, confirming the criminal role that the media played in the 1994 genocide, which left some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in just over three months. The three accused were given prison sentences ranging from 35 years to life. In 2003, there was also growing international concern about partisan and provocative reporting in Ivory Coast, where both pro-government and pro-rebel media have inflamed tensions, undermining the fragile peace process and possibly increasing the level of violence. While the motive for the murder of journalist Hélène is unknown, it occurred in an atmosphere of xenophobia and anti-French feeling that had been fueled by the local media.

Media professionalism remains a legitimate cause for concern. The first complaint of many journalists’ organizations in Africa is low pay and lack of training, both of which may increase the temptation for journalists to accept bribes. But the governments that complain most about lack of professionalism in the media are often those that attack press freedoms. Governments often abuse legislation against hate speech and ethnic discrimination to suppress legitimate criticism in the press.

Radio remains the only effective way to bring information to the majority of people in most African countries, where high rates of illiteracy and the costs of print media often confine newspapers’ influence to elite circles. Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea have no independent radio stations.

Nevertheless, some positive developments have occurred. For example, the new transition government in Liberia has invited Star Radio to return. The popular, independent station, an initiative of the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, was closed by former President Charles Taylor in 2000. Private radio stations in Burundi faced down a government ban on interviewing rebels and exposed weaknesses in a sensitive murder inquiry. Meanwhile, globalization and the spread of mobile phones and the Internet have given journalists in Africa, as elsewhere, a new medium to exchange information and build solidarity.

Julia Crawford, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, along with Adam Posluns, Africa research associate, and Alexis Arieff, research and special projects associate, researched and wrote this section. Kate Davenport, former BBC correspondent in Abidjan, contributed the summary on Ivory Coast. The summary on the Democratic Republic of Congo was written by Stephanie Wolters, former chief news editor for Radio Okapi in Kinshasa.