Across Continent, Governments Criminalize
By Mohamed Keita
Across the continent, the emergence of in-depth reporting and the absence of effective access-to-information laws have set a collision course in which public officials, intent on shielding their activities, are moving aggressively to unmask confidential sources, criminalize the possession of government documents, and retaliate against probing journalists. From Cameroon to Kenya, South Africa to Senegal, government reprisals have resulted in imprisonments, violence, threats, and legal harassment. At least two suspicious deaths–one involving an editor, the other a confidential source–have been reported in the midst of government reprisals against probing news coverage.
THE PRESS: 2010
• Main Index
• Across Continent,
• Democratic Republic of Congo
• South Africa
• Other nations
The region has entered an era of “new challenges to state power,” in which both citizens and the press are questioning the use of public funds more than at any time in the half-century since many African nations gained independence, said Ayesha Kajee, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, a South Africa-based group that works against censorship and promotes freedom of information. “Particularly through investigative journalism, which highlights corruption, nepotism, and ‘clientele-ism,’ the public sees huge gaps between the majority and the elite,” she said. For now, Kajee said, many governments are intent on suppressing in-depth journalism.
There is much at stake in how the conflict plays out. It’s partly through the news media that international donors hold policy-makers to account over issues such as good governance, human rights, and the management of profits from resource exploitation. But given the dearth of government information available to the public, African journalists are often forced to resort to confidential sources and leaked documents. “When you send interview questions, instead of a response, you get contemptuous silence,” said Jean-Bosco Talla, a 20-year veteran of the press in Cameroon. “All too often, when we publish something, the people concerned will call us not to deny [the details], but to ask who gave us the information. They threaten us.”
And those threats can turn real.
In February, Laurent Esso, a presidential adviser and chairman of Cameroon’s state oil company SNH, ordered intelligence agents to arrest four newspaper editors after they sent him a series of questions along with a copy of a document that had been leaked to them. Their questions centered on whether 1.3 billion CFA francs (US$2.6 million) had been improperly paid to three SNH managers as “commissions” in the purchase of a company boat, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. The accompanying document purported to be a June 2008 confidential memorandum signed by Esso that described the payments. One of the journalists, Simon Hervé Nko’o, said security agents tortured him in an effort to extract his sources during a week-long, incommunicado detention. He fled into exile, but another editor, Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota, died while in pretrial detention on charges of “forging” the document. Two other editors spent nine months in pretrial detention on the same charges. Esso did not comment publicly on the allegations, and did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.
“The management of oil–it’s really opaque. SNH publishes some data, but they disclose only what they wish,” local journalist Roland Tsapi said.
The right to seek, receive, and impart information is enshrined in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. It’s also recognized by the national constitutions in the overwhelming majority of African nations. Yet only seven African countries–South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe–have enacted legislation providing public access to government information. Even there, little information is actually given out, according to CPJ research. “Most countries don’t have access-to-information clauses in their constitutions. Alternatively, where you have access-to-information clauses, there is no enabling law that stipulates procedures. Implementation and enforcement become problematic,” said Pansy Tlakula, the African Union’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression.
That sliver of access may shrink further. In March, South African Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele introduced a restrictive “protection of information bill.” Under the bill, officials and state agencies would have unchecked authority to classify public or commercial data as secret based on vaguely defined “national interest” considerations, according to CPJ research and legal experts. National interests would, for instance, include “details of criminal investigations.” The bill would place the burden on journalists to establish “public interest” to justify declassifying any information. Journalists and others found guilty of unauthorized disclosure of official or classified information could face up to 25 years in jail. Critics said the bill, which was pending in late year, came in response to news reports that cited leaked government data showing wasteful spending.
Individual journalists and their sources have been targeted as well. As South Africa prepared to host the 2010 World Cup, the African National Congress-led government, on the defensive about its inability to combat crime, brought tremendous pressure to bear on eTV News Editor Ben Saidi and reporter Mpho Lakaje. The journalists had refused to reveal the identities of two masked men who said in a televised interview in January that they planned to rob tourists during tournament matches in Soweto.
“The police had announced a campaign to fight crime: They said they would fight fire with fire. We decided to interview criminals to find out whether they took the police statements seriously or if it would really be business as usual,” Saidi told CPJ. Authorities, reacting to what they saw as bad publicity, interrogated the journalists for several hours and publicly threatened to charge them under a provision of the apartheid-era Criminal Procedure Act, a law traditionally used to compel uncooperative witnesses in criminal cases. Saidi said the journalists refused to disclose their sources, but the case came to tragedy. A man who helped set up the interview, Lucky Phungula, was found dead in his home days later, the victim of a poisoning. Police labeled the death a suicide and said Phungula left a note saying he feared being exposed.
Bewyn Petersen, vice chairman of the South African Press Council, said the implications were far-reaching, writing in a Business Day column that “it may prevent journalists from having access to similar situations in the future and may even endanger their lives.”
Not only have regional governments failed to ensure access to public information, they have yet to provide any legal protections for confidential news sources, leaving journalists and their sources open to unchecked intimidation. “While the rest of the world is slowly recognizing the journalistic privilege to protect sources, Africa has made no progress on this front despite the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa calling for precisely such protection back in 2002,” said Peter Noorlander, legal director of the U.K-based Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Evelyn Groenink, a freelance journalist for local and Dutch media who has investigated the arms trade in southern Africa, said the regional press is increasingly embracing a Western model of challenging journalism–even as many governments cling to the postcolonial era in which they could dominate the flow of information. Conflict, she said, is inevitable.
In Kenya, police brought intense pressure against two investigative journalists who exposed the mishandling of evidence against a suspect wanted in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
A source in the national police anti-terrorism unit provided Andrew Teyie, investigations editor for The Star of Nairobi, and reporter Maina Kamore with information that appeared to implicate top officers in the disappearance of a flash drive containing evidence against Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a suspected Al-Qaeda member. As is often the case, the source was motivated by frustration and a sense of injustice, Teyie told CPJ. After the June 20, 2009, edition of The Star carried the story, the journalists and two colleagues were summoned by the anti-terrorism unit and subjected to hours-long interrogations.
“They were very specific about the info they wanted. They wanted to find out how we got the story,” said Teyie. After the journalists refused, authorities lodged contempt-of-court charges against Teyie and Kamore based on the story’s identification of three people accused of aiding Mohammed. Authorities argued that the disclosure was prejudicial to any prosecutions they might bring against Mohammed. The case against the journalists remained open in late 2010, according to Teyie. Mohammed was at large.
In Ivory Coast, the government’s reluctance to disclose information concerning a probe into embezzlement of profits that should have gone to local cocoa and coffee producers, led a fledgling investigative newspaper to dig deeper. The government had announced the end of the probe in June, with state television showing prosecutor Raymond Tchimou submitting the report to President Laurent Gbagbo. But the report itself was held back from the public, and Tchimou seemed reluctant to disclose any details. Although two dozen people were imprisoned during the course of the government’s probe, no cases were brought to trial. “It seemed a bit odd, and it drew our curiosity,” Saint-Claver Oula, editor-in-chief of the private weekly Le Nouveau Courrier, told CPJ. After the newspaper got a copy of the report from an unnamed source, it published an in-depth piece on July 13 that described the prosecutor’s findings of embezzlement, over-billing, and malfeasance.
Tchimou immediately summoned Oula, along with Le Nouveau Courrier Managing Editor Stéphane Guédé and News Editor Théophile Kouamouo, and demanded they reveal their sources or be thrown into prison for “theft” of official documents. When the trio refused, the prosecutor jailed them for 13 days and dispatched police to raid the offices of Le Nouveau Courrier. Police came to the newsroom without a search warrant, but carted away Oula’s laptop.
Ivorian military chief Gen. Philippe Mangou was even more direct in an earlier case. In January, he summoned Editor-in-Chief Emmanuel Koré and News Editor Bakary Nimaga of Le Patriote after the daily published a copy of a leaked memorandum from his office directing subordinates to target opposition demonstrators as enemies of the state. “The source who came forward with the document thought such language was dangerous for national unity,” Nimaga told CPJ. Mangou threatened to raid Le Patriote and told the editors that he had “gone to war” against them. “It’s the last time I warn you,” the paper quoted him as saying.
For now, governments seem more intent on shielding their actions than addressing domestic and international demands for transparency. The irony is that secrecy is bound to fuel even more investigative reporting. In some parts of the region, a “democracy deficit” contributes to government intransigence, said Mukelani Dimba, an analyst with the South Africa-based Open Democracy Advice Centre. In countries without effective opposition parties, he said, a critical press “assumes the posture of the opposition, or at least it is perceived as such.”
Local investigative reporting often focuses on basic governance such as the delivery of public services and the use of public money. When the press uncovers malfeasance, it’s a sensitive issue for governments dependent on foreign aid and investments. Recent revelations of corruption in Senegal, for example, caused the country to slip into the bottom half of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index in just the past two years.
One of Senegal’s best-known journalists, Abdou Latif Coulibaly, editor of the private weekly La Gazette, was the target of two criminal prosecutions triggered by investigative stories. After the government detained a top telecommunications regulator in March on charges of siphoning funds from a licensing agreement, La Gazette published in May a series of stories alleging that additional officials profited from the US$200 million deal. An official named in the story, presidential adviser Thierno Ousmane Sy, soon filed a criminal defamation complaint against La Gazette. Coulibaly and two colleagues were fined a total of 20 million CFA francs (US$39,000), although they appealed.
Sy’s father, Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy, then brought additional criminal charges of “handling stolen administrative documents” against Coulibaly in connection with a 2007 story about corruption in the national lottery. Because similar charges against the journalist had already been dismissed in the lottery case, most observers saw the revived counts as retaliation. That case was pending in late year.
Far from viewing press revelations as negative, international development officials say the publication of information about government performance fills critical gaps in official data reporting. Even when a nation suffers negative short-term consequences from a critical news story, they say, it benefits from being perceived as having a transparent society with a press that serves as a check on power.
“In Uganda, the publication of the amount of money reaching primary schools led to an increase in this amount,” the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa, Shantayanan Devarajan, pointed out in an e-mail interview with CPJ. Anga Timilsina, coordinator of the U.N. Development Programme’s anti-corruption effort, said press scrutiny expedites the achievement of Millenium Development Goals, eight anti-poverty benchmarks that world leaders have committed to reaching by 2015. “The press definitely has a role to play in achieving the [goals] through a range of activities … making the governments and donors responsive and accountable to their promises.”
In fact, journalists such as the award-winning Ghanaian reporter Anas Aremeyao Anas have recorded spectacular successes in naming and shaming the perpetrators of corruption, child abuse, and human trafficking. As the press pursues investigative stories, he said, it has an obligation to focus on the public good and to avoid a fixation on taking down political figures. “You catch the person hand in soup,” said Aremeyao, known for his undercover work. “But you give them an opportunity to explain because in the explanation, you find a solution, i.e., ‘I did so because the government is not paying us well.'”
Mohamed Keita is CPJ’s Africa advocacy coordinator.