Attacks on the Press 2007: Africa Analysis

When Press Freedom and Democracy Are Out of Step
By Tom Rhodes
Ballots may have replaced bullets in much of Africa since the dawn of this new century, but one of the great political ironies for at least part of the continent has been a loss of press freedom following the voting. Leaders in a large swath of sub-Saharan Africa have drawn approving nods from Western politicians for holding sometimes unprecedented elections. Three such countries are the Gambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Ethiopia. All have democratically elected presidents and Western support. Yet between them they hold the unenviable record of placing at or near the top of CPJ’s 2007 list of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom.

Freedom of expression has not only failed to march in lockstep with democracy in these states, it has been severely curtailed. Elections may have pleased foreign governments, but autocratic leaders did not appreciate the consequences at home: an emboldened opposition, heightened public scrutiny and debate, and an independent press. Within months of the polling, leaders in the Gambia, Ethiopia, and the DRC began trying to put the democratic genie back into the bottle.

All three countries are signatories to international and regional human rights conventions, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and have national guarantees written in their constitutions to protect press freedom. Two of them, the Gambia and Ethiopia, even host offices of the 53-member African Union (AU) in their capitals.

In 2006, the DRC overcame a decade of political strife and regional rebellions to stage its first multiparty elections in 46 years. That feat earned President Joseph Kabila high praise from his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, during a visit to the White House in November. Bush was equally supportive of Ethiopia, which in 2005 staged only the second round of elections in its long history. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi later garnered U.S. diplomatic backing after his country’s military intervention in neighboring Somalia helped oust an Islamist government from Mogadishu. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, re-elected to a third term in 2006 in a vote considered free and fair, is also seen in a favorable light for his efforts to maintain economic stability, Britain’s high commissioner in Banjul, Philip Sinkinson, told CPJ.

Yet in each case voting was followed by a crackdown on the press. Since 2005, the Ethiopian government has orchestrated the wholesale arrest and intimidation of media workers, compelling at least 37 journalists to live in exile–the second-highest number that CPJ has recorded worldwide. According to the exiled head of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, Kifle Mulat, 20 independent papers were in operation at the time of the 2005 elections. Now there are a quarter of that number, and “all are censored, whether directly or indirectly,” he said.

The DRC’s press freedom defense organization, Journaliste en Danger (JED), estimated that more than 90 percent of the escalating number of attacks, threats, and harassment of DRC journalists were carried out with impunity by government personnel. The Gambian media has suffered systematic intimidation and harassment by government authorities over the past five years, culminating in a steady flow of professional Gambian journalists fleeing the country–at least 23 since 2002, according to CPJ research.

In unleashing this onslaught against the news media, the leaders of Ethiopia and the DRC were essentially reacting to the burgeoning popularity of political opposition parties. The last elections saw the opposition make strong inroads in both countries. In the DRC, Kabila’s main opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba, took 20 percent of the vote; Ethiopia’s opposition parties, which once held a mere handful of seats, won about a third of parliament in the 2005 elections.

Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of the Ethiopian opposition party Coalition for Unity and Democracy, told CPJ that opposition forces had made progress in all major towns across the country–something neither Zenawi nor his party were expecting. When street protests erupted over vote-counting problems, an anxious government reacted swiftly by arresting Nega, dozens of political opponents, and 15 journalists.

In Kinshasa, DRC authorities summarily pulled off the air for almost half a year Canal Congo TV, Canal Kin TV, and Radio Liberté Kinshasa–all broadcasters owned by opposition leader Bemba. President Kabila’s clampdown on the press was partially sparked by media houses that produced biased, and often subsidized, election coverage, according to local journalists. JED Secretary-General Tshivis Tshivuadi told CPJ that some newspapers, radio stations, and television outlets were acting as a “propaganda press committed to defending the political interests of their own candidates.” An estimated 80 percent of Congolese journalists do not have employment contracts, prompting many to write for hire, accepting payment from the very individuals they are supposed to be covering objectively.

None of the three countries’ leaders have allowed the development of a truly independent civil society or judiciary, key components in protecting press freedom. “While the Gambian judiciary is weak, there hardly exist civil-society institutions worthy of the name,” said former Gambian Press Union President Demba Jawo. “The few existing civil-society groups have all been neutralized, and none of them have the guts to challenge anything the government does–hence the frequent government suppression of the press.” Similarly, veteran Ethiopian journalist Goshu Moges claimed only one Ethiopian civil society group is concerned with protecting press freedom and “most are too scared of government harassment to be effective.”

In the DRC, as the judiciary calendar recommenced in November 2007, the country’s top prosecutor, Tshimanga Mukeba, demonstrated his allegiance to the ruling party in his opening remarks by focusing on “outrages against the authorities and insults against the head of state.” Mukeba threatened to severely punish anyone, whether parliamentarian or journalist, who criticized the government, Tshivuadi told CPJ.

External forces have shown limited willingness to push for the reform of repressive government practices. The Banjul-based special rapporteur on free expression in Africa, Faith Pansy Tlakula, is assigned to ensure African Union member states comply with Article 9 of the African Charter, which protects the right to free expression. “But the issue we are facing now is one of implementation,” Tlakula told CPJ. Tlakula can only make recommendations; her office has no power to issue binding judgments. And recommendations are often poorly received–or ignored.

Despite increasing regional and international isolation, the Gambian government remains indifferent to regional pressures. Jammeh was noticeably absent from the AU January summit in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and the July summit in Accra, Ghana. Similarly, Gambian government officials failed to show up for three hearings set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). An Accra-based press freedom organization, Media Foundation for West Africa, filed a case with the court against the Gambian government regarding the disappearance of former Daily Observer journalist “Chief” Ebrima B. Manneh. Eyewitnesses said state security forces seized Manneh in July 2006 after he tried to publish a story critical of Jammeh. He was being held incommunicado in a secret location in late 2007.

Diplomatic threats to cut aid have held diminishing sway since the emergence of a powerful new donor nation willing to provide aid with fewer strings attached: China. In February, Chinese President Hu Jintao completed a 12-day tour of African countries during which he handed out unconditional support worth millions of dollars in investment, loans, and aid. Beijing has promised US$5 billion in soft loans and grants to African states in the coming years as China increases trade with the continent. Red lanterns were scattered across Addis Ababa in 2006 to welcome Hu to the China-Africa summit, attended by nearly 50 African heads of state.

Strategic U.S. allies such as Ethiopia enjoy similar human rights record exemptions. President Bush opposed a 2007 bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that linked some military aid in Ethiopia to support for human rights and democracy. The bill passed in the House but had yet to reach the full Senate for a vote.With the U.S. supporting Ethiopian troops in the ouster of the Islamic Courts Union in neighboring Somalia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer told the Bloomberg news service that the House measure would “constrain” what Bush is able to do “to manage U.S. government interests.”

Democracy is still young in the region, and for every two steps forward there is often one step back. Other African nations were successful in carrying off free elections and respecting a free press. Sierra Leone held what official observers considered a free and fair election in August, while 27 independent newspapers operated in the capital, Freetown, without government interference. Togo’s first parliamentary elections, held in October, were also carried out with few attacks on press freedom, according to the newly appointed independent press union secretary-general, Augustin Koffi.

But the experience of the DRC, the Gambia, and Ethiopia should serve as a warning that staging an election is in itself no guarantee of democracy or the development of media freedom.

“Elections are useful for opening political space, but there is a lot more to democracy than just elections,” said Dave Peterson, senior director of the Africa program for the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. “Even democratically elected leaders are not always respectful of democracy.” Without a functioning independent judiciary and strong civil society, the press cannot build on the democratic foundation laid down by a free election. In fact, the voting may prove to be simply a convenient cover for an autocrat. The polls in Ethiopia and the DRC encouraged international donors to turn a blind eye toward press violations that occurred in both countries. As a witness to the crackdown on the press after the Ethiopian ballot in 2005, exiled journalist Elias Wondimu believes the elections were designed more to please Westerners than Ethiopians. “Democracy must grow inside,” said Wondimu. “It shouldn’t be done just to please somebody. … It should be done to change the system.”

JED’s Tshivuadi agreed. “Although we recognized these elections as an important step toward democracy,” he said, “they are still not synonymous with democracy restored. In fact, the elections were a way for the former belligerents to legitimize their power that was already taken by force of arms.”