The rise of extremist groups who target journalists is a potent risk. By Mohamed Keita

(AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei)

Africa’s Media-Savvy Insurgents Pose New Dangers

By Mohamed Keita

It was midmorning on April 26, 2012, and Grace Chimezie, an intern in the newsroom of the Nigerian daily ThisDay in the capital Abuja, was checking email and reviewing newspapers for the next editorial meeting when an explosion ripped through the office complex. “I found myself on the floor, groaning in pain,” Chimezie recalled in a story in her paper. In a split-second move that probably saved her life, Chimezie evaded a chunk of debris that came crashing down on her laptop. The explosion killed five people; Chimezie was among at least eight injured.

The Islamist militant sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for this bombing of the offices of ThisDay newspaper in Abuja. (AFP/Pius Utomi Ekpei)

The blast was one of two simultaneous bombings that targeted the offices of three newspapers, in Abuja and the northern city of Kaduna. The militant Islamist sect Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for both. “We have just started this new campaign against the media and we will not stop here–we will hit the media hard,” warned Abul Qaqa, a spokesman for the group.

Journalists have long been caught in the crossfire, literally and figuratively, between opposing sides in armed conflict and where nonstate actors such as insurgents or criminal groups operate: Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mexico are powerful examples of the past decade. But with the rise of mobile Internet technology and social media, both insurgent groups and the governments they are fighting have become more cognizant, and apparently more sensitive, to how they are portrayed. The result is increased danger for journalists, who are squeezed between threat of violent attack from one side and pressure of censorship or prosecution from the other. At the same time, nonstate actors are trying to leverage social media for themselves, bypassing traditional journalists to disseminate their messages directly.

“One of the most potent modern threats to emerge against journalists is the rise of extremist groups who deliberately target journalists,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, told CPJ by email. “The changes in technology and accessibility of media over the Internet also mean that human rights abusers are much more aware of what is being written about them, and that can result in more direct and immediate threats against the journalists who are writing critically about these individuals or groups.”

The problem has gained attention at the highest international levels. In September 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed “concern that there is a growing threat to the safety of journalists posed by nonstate actors, including terrorist groups and criminal organizations.”

The menace of terrorist groups grew exponentially for the press in Mali and Nigeria in 2012, as these two nations battled violent Islamists in their respective northern regions. Brutal actions by the militants forced some journalists into hiding and induced others to self-censor–a cycle of intimidation already familiar to reporters covering some of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, such as in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. “West Africa is confronted with a new wave of challenges to governance, peace consolidation, and conflict prevention,” Said Djinnit, the U.N. special representative in the region, said in July.

Journalists in Mali–a model of stability and democracy for more than two decades–were subject to a record number of attacks by insurgents and government security forces as the country slipped into instability. After the military ousted the elected government, having criticized its handling of a separatist Tuareg rebellion in the vast Saharan north, the rebels allied with radical jihadi militants and seized northern town after town. Separatists, particularly jihadi militants, accounted for the overwhelming majority of attacks on journalists, according to CPJ research, as they imposed draconian censorship measures and brutal intimidation tactics. Speaking of the insurgent groups, Yéhiha Tandina, a journalist based in the fabled northeast town Timbuktu, said, “They don’t like to see photos of child soldiers among them or anything portraying their fighters in a bad light.”

In the northeastern town of Ansongo, militants from the Salafist group Ansar Dine took over Radio Soni in April and forced the station to replace its female editor, Fatoumata Abdou, with a man and limit its programming to Quranic recitations. In the town of Gao, on at least two occasions, fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa dragged the Radio Adar Khoïma host Malick Aliou Maïga away from live programming at gunpoint and assaulted him for reporting on public discontent with the brutal rule of the Islamists. Across northern Mali, radio stations were forced to drop any musical content, including jingles, local journalists told CPJ. “When you want to cover an event, you must present a letter [to the militant groups] with your questions in advance,” Tandina said.

At least two journalists fled northern Mali in 2012 because of direct intimidation, and many others have left because they were unable to carry on their professional duties, according to CPJ research. Towns of the sparsely populated region have limited electricity and mobile network coverage; radio is the most widely available medium. As a result of the censorship and intimidation, residents have been stripped of discussion platforms and forced to rely on international radio broadcasts for independent information.

“The human rights situation in West African countries affected by political instability and insecurity, such as Mali … and in those affected by the growing threat of terrorism, such as Nigeria, remains a source of concern,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in a report to the Security Council in June 2012.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been waging war on the federal government since 2009 in an effort to impose Shariah law in the country’s northern, predominantly Muslim states. In the conflict, “the mass media have been very crucial to publicizing the violent activities of nonstate armed and terrorist groups in Nigeria and state security measures to contain them,” Olusola Isola and Michael Akintayo wrote in the October 2012 edition of International Journal of Social Science Tomorrow. In October 2011, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the murder of Zakariya Isa, accusing the state media cameraman of spying. In May, Boko Haram followed the twin bombings in April 2012 with a chilling video released on YouTube that singled out three international news outlets and 11 Nigerian papers for attacks. In the same video, which registered more than 86,000 views, the Boko Haram spokesman Qaqa accused ThisDay of inaccurately attributing to Boko Haram attacks it did not carry out. News outlets “should understand that for us there is no difference between those fighting with arms and with the pen,” Qaqa said in August, accusing the media of taking sides.

Boko Haram accounted for only one-fifth of attacks against the press in Nigeria in 2012–most were committed by government forces and officials, according to CPJ research–but the group’s brutal tactics caused much greater fear. “To say there are increased security risks facing journalists this year compared to previous years is an understatement of the fact,” said Aishatu Sule, deputy president of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.

Boko Haram did not immediately follow through on the threats in its May video, but the open-ended warning prompted many news outlets to pull their correspondents out of the group’s strongholds in northern Nigeria. Some reporters have gone underground or suspended work altogether, while others have simply adapted their reporting to the group’s demands, local journalists told CPJ.

“Generally, there is a shift on the part of the media from blaming all attacks and killings on the group unless it claims responsibility. So, you now find the media using ‘gunmen’ and ‘attackers’ to describe suspects of attacks that are without clear signatures of the insurgents,” Daily Trust investigative editor Nuruddeen Abdallah told CPJ in an email. “We are now being more careful with all the information,” he said, and that includes “the usual security agencies’ spins on their ‘successes’ in tackling the militant group.”

Government responses to coverage of the insurgents put further pressure on journalists. In a September 2012 keynote address at the All Nigerian Editors Conference, Presidential National Security Adviser M. S. Dasuki urged media to play down reporting of Boko Haram attacks and refrain from embarrassing the government. “This is particularly important in the advent of social media and the Internet, when all your newspapers are being read around the world almost as instantly as you finish your columns,” he said. “Bad press about Nigeria affects the ability of our nation’s level of entrepreneurship and job creation.”

In Mali, the government resorted to blocking websites and phone numbers belonging to the Islamists. According to Diakaridia Dembélé, a freelance reporter based in the capital, Bamako, a call to spokesmen for the militants on one of the country’s largest mobile networks yielded this voice recording: “You are not authorized to call this number because it belongs to persons with bad intentions.”

Though insurgent groups are a relatively new menace for the press in West Africa, they have long established a trail of censorship and journalists’ blood in Somalia, Africa’s deadliest nation for the press. At least 20 journalists have been murdered in Somalia since Al-Shabaab militants emerged in the country in 2007, according to CPJ research–more than the number killed in the prior 14 years of civil war. Al-Shabaab, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for only five of the murders, and while it is possible that other criminal or political groups could be behind some of the deaths, the hard-line jihadi group represents the most fearsome threat. Somali authorities have never brought to trial any suspect in the murder of a journalist, affording killers total impunity.

Governments in Nigeria and Mali have not done much better. In the twin bombings in April, the Nigerian police arrested one of the bombers, but have not brought anyone to trial, according to local journalists. Frank Mba, Nigeria’s federal police spokesman, referred questions about the government’s efforts to ensure the safety of journalists to the press itself. “If you speak to the Nigerian media, they’ll tell you the steps we are taking,” he said. “We don’t go about telling the whole world what we are doing.” He added that police don’t treat the press differently than any other sector of society. In response, Sule of the Nigerian Guild of Editors noted that the press constitutes a particularly vulnerable group, which should merit commensurate police attention. She also said authorities generally refuse to make exceptions for journalists and media workers during curfews related to terror attacks, making it difficult for them to work.

In Mali, where the insurgency and the coup have divided the country in two, with both halves in chaos, journalists have little more to rely on than their wits. Veteran reporter Moussa Kaka, who has been reporting on Islamist militants in Mali, said he relies on his extensive experience as a reporter to keep himself safe and circumvent limitations. Ultimately, however, “you must establish total trust” with your subjects, he said.

Governments, however, can be quick to arrest journalists like Kaka who secure interviews with insurgents. Kaka was once imprisoned in his native Niger for more than a year on anti-state charges, based on recordings of his phone conversations with Tuareg rebels. In June 2012, a court in Burundi sentenced radio reporter Hassan Ruvakuki to life in prison on terrorism charges based on his embedded reporting with a new rebel movement.

Though the Nigerian government hasn’t arrested journalists for reporting on Boko Haram, reporters told CPJ they believe their actions are being closely watched by the authorities. “Most of us know that our phone lines are bugged by the security agencies. We are operating between the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Daily Trust‘s Abdallah. Freelance journalist Ahmad Salkida, who has extensively covered Boko Haram, reported in March 2012 that he had been put under surveillance and had received threatening phone calls from suspected state security agents. He went into hiding.

To some extent, journalists can take advantage of technology to reduce the hazards of reporting on armed groups. “The electronic nature of social media and mobility of modern telephones makes it relatively easy to communicate from a safe and remote distance,” said Judith Matloff, a veteran international correspondent and journalist security consultant. One Nigerian journalist, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal from Boko Haram, said, “It is very common to see a journalist writing about Maiduguri,” a northeastern city badly afflicted by the conflict, “from Abuja, Kaduna, Lagos, or even Port Harcourt because it is suicidal to stay in one place.”

Yet, even as insurgent groups like Boko Haram intimidate journalists in a bid to influence coverage, they also bypass the mainstream media by disseminating their own messages via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the M23 rebels, a group of army mutineers who seized key towns in North Kivu in 2012, displayed one of the most innovative media operations of any of the multitude of armed groups operating in restive eastern Congo. The group disseminated videos of their communiques on YouTube and boasted a Facebook page that garnered nearly 7,000 likes. Facebook eventually shut down the page after numerous complaints. At least three journalists were forced to relocate from the restive North Kivu province after enduring direct threats and intimidation from the rebels for reporting on their alleged abuses, according to CPJ research. In their research paper, Isola and Akintayo wrote that insurgent groups “deliberately use the new media to intensify the fear they create among the public and to reach the elite and younger elements of the population who may not be too exposed to the traditional media.”

This dual strategy to control information is a striking contrast to the insurgencies of previous decades, when the press served as a conduit at times in delivering the messages of militant groups.

“It’s funny to think back to the 1980s, before we had readily available cellphones or social media,” Matloff said. “Fax was the main form of communication, and it was rare to find a Mozambican or Angolan rebel who could quickly send a message from the jungle.” Digital connectivity means insurgents can “be their own media,” said David J. Betz, an expert on counterinsurgency and information and professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Betz told CPJ by email, “News editors who once played a very important role as gatekeepers are not nearly so powerful as they were.”

To the insurgent and criminal groups operating today, the press is instead a rival in disseminating information–and events in Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia make plain that journalists are vulnerable as a result.

Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several international panels.

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