For some delegates, just getting to the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) regional conference in Dakar, Senegal, was an impressive achievement. While his colleagues used more conventional modes of transportation, Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) president Frank Kposowa navigated his way out of the country by night in a hired motorized dugout canoe. The state of anarchy in Sierra Leone since the May 25, 1997, coup d’?état had rendered travel virtually impossible, and Kposowa’s risky passage was just another example of the challenges facing courageous journalists who chose to remain in the country and risked losing their lives by practicing their profession.
Further down the coast, in Nigeria, the February 22 detention by State Security Service (SSS) operatives of WAJA delegates Lanre Ogundipe, national president of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), and Lanre Arogundade, Lagos state chairman of the NUJ, exemplified the deterioration of conditions for the media under the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. Ogundipe and Arogundade, who were held for several hours at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, departed for the Dakar conference after completing security forms which required providing the names of three people each in Nigeria and Senegal who could be held accountable for their actions.
The three-day WAJA gathering, held at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, examined obstacles to the development of free, independent, and pluralistic media in the sub-region and identified reforms and practical means for strengthening the profession. WAJA delegates–journalists association presidents from the 16 member countries–Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone–presented reports on the state of their media.
Accounts ranged from bleak to upbeat. CPJ Africa program coordinator Kakuna Kerina spoke during a special session on Nigeria, where the conditions for journalists have taken an precipitous turn for the worse. Gen. Abacha’s government now holds 20 journalists in jail–more than any country except Turkey. Among those imprisoned is Christine Anyanwu, editor of the now-defunct The Sunday Magazine and a winner of CPJ’s 1997 Press Freedom Award. Kerina worked with WAJA delegates to develop a joint action, The International Day of Solidarity with Nigerian Journalists, scheduled for World Press Freedom Day (May 3), when member unions will protest at Nigerian embassies in all WAJA member countries. On a more positive note, Malian delegate Moussa Keita elicited rousing applause when he reported that there are now 93 private radio stations broadcasting in the country which, since 1995, has become a beacon of press freedom in the region.
The catalyst for optimism about WAJA’s future, clearly evident during the conference, is Kabral Blay-Amihere. A year and a half into his term as the organization’s president, Blay’s priority is to strengthen the capacity of the group to advocate for journalists and address press freedom issues effectively against the backdrop of some of the worst conditions ever for the press in the sub-region.
Upon his election, Blay, who has a strong commitment to press freedom advocacy, immediately forged alliances with regional and international press freedom organizations. He analyzed the group’s historical shortcomings, stating, “Most of our unions have not functioned professionally in the past because they have had secretariats without any operational base.” Blay plans to create press centers in all member countries because he believes they help to foster a professional identity among journalists.
Taking the Ghana International Press Center as a model, the goal of these press centers is to increase self-reliance by providing a setting for press conferences, seminars, and workshops; to provide a forum for networking between local journalists and foreign correspondents working in the region; and to serve as resource centers for journalists. “The benefits are numerous,” Blay said. “When President Clinton visited Ghana last week, the press center handled all the local press accreditation for approximately 40 journalist from both the broadcast and print media.”
The Internet has become an invaluable tool for journalists throughout the region, providing a means to transmit their stories to the international community, create opportunities for marketing their work to other media outlets, and facilitate communication with their colleagues abroad. WAJA’s Ghana, Togo, and Senegal secretariats are online, and Blay anticipates that The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Mali member offices will join them by the end of 1998. A WAJA website is currently being created in Accra by AfricaOnline (http:www.africaonline.com.gh/waja) and should be fully operational in May. All WAJA publications will be available on the website, which will also serve as a platform for monitoring and reporting on press freedom in the sub-region, and for providing up-to-date country-specific information.
Since its founding in 1986, WAJA has emerged as the leading media organization in the region. The group has galvanized journalists toward common goals that transcend member countries’ borders.