by Julia Crawford
With the rule of law weak in many African countries, journalists regularly battle threats and harassment, not only from governments but also from rogue elements, such as militias. Repressive legislation is used in many countries to silence journalists who write about sensitive topics such as corruption, mismanagement, and human rights abuses. If fewer journalists were killed or imprisoned in Africa than in some other regions in 2004–two were killed and 19 were behind bars for their work at year’s end–the problems they face are insidious and ongoing.
In the Gambia, veteran journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara was killed in a drive-by shooting in December, just days after the country adopted repressive media legislation that he had opposed. In Ivory Coast, reporter Antoine Massé was fatally shot while covering violent clashes between French peacekeeping troops and demonstrators in the western town of Duékoué in November. French and Canadian investigative reporter Guy-André Kieffer was feared dead after he disappeared from the Ivoirian commercial capital, Abidjan, in April. This followed the killings of two journalists in Ivory Coast in 2003, including the murder of Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent Jean Hélène by an Ivoirian police officer. As the country’s civil conflict worsened in 2004, journalists continued to be targeted.
The conviction of Hélène’s murderer in early 2004 was a welcome contrast to the pattern of impunity that has often accompanied the murders of journalists in Africa. Under pressure from France, judicial investigations were launched into Kieffer’s disappearance, but they had reached no conclusion by year’s end. In neighboring Burkina Faso, the killers of independent journalist Norbert Zongo have still not been punished, six years after his death. Zongo was killed in December 1998 while investigating the murder of a man who worked as a driver for the president’s brother. In Mozambique, six men were sentenced to lengthy jail terms in 2003 for the November 2000 murder of investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso, but fears persist that the masterminds remain at large. Concerns that high-level officials were involved intensified in May, when one of the convicts escaped from prison for a second time and managed to flee to Canada.
Eritrea remained Africa’s worst jailer of journalists, with 17 held in secret prisons. Many have been detained without trial for more than three years amid allegations of torture and reports of appalling conditions. The Eritrean government has refused to disclose any information about them or to engage in any dialogue about their plight. One journalist was jailed in Cameroon and another in Sierra Leone at year’s end. Despite Sierra Leone’s professed return to democracy since the end of its civil war in 2002, the government used an abusive and outdated law to prosecute veteran newspaper editor Paul Kamara for an article criticizing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. In October, a court sentenced Kamara to two years in prison for “seditious libel,” despite the protests of journalists and press freedom groups.
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ included Eritrea and Zimbabwe on its annual list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.” Eritrea has banned the entire private press since 2001, and Zimbabwe’s regime seems bent on the same goal. President Robert Mugabe’s government has used repressive legislation to shutter the country’s only independent newspaper, The Daily News, as well as to detain and harass dozens of independent journalists. In the run-up to crucial general elections in March 2005, authorities have introduced a string of even more repressive laws, including one that could be used to jail journalists for up to 20 years for publishing or communicating “false” information deemed prejudicial to the state.
Other trouble spots include tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where independent journalism is not tolerated; Rwanda, where serious threats and intimidation continue against government critics, including journalists; and the autonomous Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, where a government ban has kept the only independent newspaper there shuttered for more than a year. In Ethiopia, the government continues to use criminal laws to intimidate independent journalists. It has divided and weakened the only independent journalists organization, EFJA, after the group protested a proposed press law.
While globalization and technology are opening rural areas and improving cross-border information flows, repressive countries such as Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, and Eritrea have been closing themselves, expelling foreign journalists, banning international human rights groups, and trying to control Internet access. In October, the Eritrean government announced it would move Internet cafés to “educational and research centers.” Authorities said the aim was to protect minors from pornography, but CPJ sources feared that the government was attempting to block access to opposition Web sites and censor one of the last channels through which Eritreans can exchange information with the outside world.
War and violence remain a major threat to journalists in countries such as Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), and even Nigeria. Journalists have sometimes been direct targets. As Ivory Coast’s government launched air raids on the rebel-held north of the country in early November, pro-government militias attacked the offices of four private newspapers, while other publications considered pro-opposition were banned, and many of their staff went into hiding. In the DRC, hostilities in the east, including the temporary fall of Bukavu to Rwandan-backed rebels in June, were accompanied by a rise in attacks on the press.
In the DRC and Ivory Coast, conflict has come with a worrying upsurge in xenophobic and violent propaganda in the media, mainly on state broadcasts and
in pro-government newspapers. When hostilities resumed in Ivory Coast, foreign radio broadcasts were silenced, and Ivoirian state media began broadcasting virulent antirebel and anti-French propaganda calling on people to take to the streets. This stopped only after appeals from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a threat of U.N. sanctions. In the DRC, press freedom groups and the country’s media watchdog complained about anti-Rwanda and anti-Tutsi speech on a national television program, but it was still broadcasting at year’s end.
Repressive governments in countries such as Rwanda, Gabon, and Ethiopia frequently invoke the specter of “hate” media and ethnic violence to clamp down on critical reporting. Governments cite the role that media, notably RTLM radio, played in inciting the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in less than three months; media outlets linked to Hutu political leaders, who organized the genocide, helped to fuel the climate of ethnic hatred and direct the killing. Rwanda’s current Tutsi-led government used RTLM as an excuse to delay the debut of private radio stations.
Radio remains the most popular and accessible medium in most African countries and is therefore the most sensitive. Countries such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea have no independent radio stations. In Rwanda, private stations were allowed on the air for the first time since the 1994 genocide, but in the current climate of government intimidation and self-censorship, they broadcast little independent news. In Cameroon, where the long-ruling President Paul Biya was returned to power in October elections, the government has used opaque licensing rules to silence private radio stations that carry reports it does not like.
Even in countries with relatively open conditions for the press, authorities have sought to influence radio programming, especially at politically sensitive times. In Uganda, which is debating the introduction of full multiparty democracy, President Yoweri Museveni has said FM radio stations that concentrate on politics rather than development should be punished, and his information minister has threatened to close stations that insult the president. Presidential elections in both Namibia and South Africa were accompanied by allegations that public broadcasters gave ruling parties disproportionate amounts of airtime.
Many African countries retain abusive criminal laws that can be used to threaten, detain, and harass journalists. But in countries such as CAR, Senegal, and the DRC, movements to lift criminal penalties for press offenses are gathering steam. In a bid to convince the European Union to lift sanctions, Togo implemented reforms that eliminated prison sentences for most press offenses. And in Sierra Leone, where newspaper editor Kamara is serving a two-year jail term, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called for the government to abolish laws on seditious and criminal libel. These moves are welcome, but history shows that African governments may find new ways to clamp down on critical reporting.
Julia Crawford, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, along with Africa Research Associate Alexis Arieff, researched and wrote this section. Thomas Hughes, a media development consultant based in West Africa, wrote the summary on Liberia. Nigerian journalist Sunday Dare contributed to the summary on Nigeria.