Protecting journalists in Africa | The Media Online

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Protecting journalists in Africa

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The Committee to Protect Journalists has its work cut out for it in Africa. Deputy director Robert Mahoney describes the situation in The Media magazine.

When I meet officials in Africa and tell them that I work for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), someone usually quips, “Why do journalists need protection?” Sadly, the answer is easy. It’s in the figures. Each year, the CPJ compiles a tally of journalists killed or imprisoned around the world. Last year 44 journalists – eight of them in Africa – lost their lives as a direct result of their work, and 145 were thrown in prison.

Contrary to what many people think, the bulk of those deaths do not occur in war zones such as the battlefields of Somalia. Deaths in crossfire account for only a small percentage of the total. More than three quarters of journalists killed are deliberately murdered. For instance, CPJ research shows that in Nigeria between 1998 and 2010 – while the country was undergoing a transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule — 13 journalists were killed in the line of duty – half of them were shot dead in their homes or cars, with the killers stealing nothing from them. And in nine out of 10 cases, the killers are never convicted. This obscene level of impunity chills all media and stifles investigative journalism.

Murder, after all, is the ultimate form of censorship. The consequences are particularly damaging for regions striving for economic development and good governance because nearly half of the reporters who are murdered lose their lives while covering corruption.

After assassination, imprisonment is the biggest threat faced by reporters. Eritrea is Africa’s biggest prison for the media, with at least 17 journalists in jail. The level of repression and lack of information in Eritrea is such that we can’t even confirm sketchy reports that several journalists have died in prison, since the regime of President Isaias Afewerki closed down independent media in 2001 and jailed many reporters.

An alarming proportion of the journalists behind bars in Africa – such as the 15 editors who crowded Ethiopia’s prisons from 2005 to 2007 – are held under vague anti-state or security laws that carry heavy jail terms. In much of west and central Africa, governments use criminal defamation and antiquated disrespect laws to take journalists out of circulation.

Other tactics to silence reporters and their outlets include intimidation, threats of violence against the journalist or family members, blackmail, denial of publishing licences, and the withholding of government advertising – a crucial revenue stream for many small newspapers. In Angola, for instance, government financially starved the country’s largest newspaper, Semanário Angolense, until owner and editor Felisberto da Grâça Campos was forced to sell to ‘private interests’ close to the ruling party in June 2010. Internet censorship and filtering are growing too. Ethiopia has become quite expert at blocking online news sites and content, and Rwanda is still blocking the websites of independent weeklies Umuvuguzi and Umusingi.

Africa presents its own unique challenges for the press, like a lack of strong commercial media outlets in many countries which can muster the political clout and finances to back a reporter who falls foul of a powerful government or businessman. Many of the journalists behind bars in Africa are from newspapers with tiny circulations, small radio stations or shoestring online news sites.

They depend on colleagues in the local media and international organisations such as the CPJ to publicise their plight and advocate for their release if they are jailed. One such is Burundian journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, whom we visited last December. He is one of at least 23 journalists we believe are currently imprisoned in sub-Saharan Africa.

What was Kavumbagu’s crime? He questioned the ability of the Burundian security forces to protect the country from terrorist attacks. He had the courage – some might say recklessness – not just to hold an opinion in an authoritarian state but to publish it. His case is not unique. His arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, denial of bail and detention in an overcrowded prison among common criminals for merely questioning authority, illustrate the dangers faced by many journalists across the continent.

Political reporting in general, and investigative reporting on corruption and state security in particular, are the most likely topics to land journalists and publishers in jail. In countries without an effective democracy, the press finds itself on the front line of politics, and is increasing viewed by the authorities as the political opposition.

So when Ethiopian reporter Teshome Niku looks into corporate tax evasion, he’s jailed without charge. Why? In Ethiopia, as in much of Africa, the connections between business and government are all pervasive. Niku was released after several weeks, but continued to be harassed. The CPJ helped him get to Kenya, but even there he was attacked by Ethiopian agents.

Reporting on security is dangerous too. After the twin bombings on 11 July in Kampala, police from the Media Offence Department accused editor of The Ugandan Record news site, Timothy Kalyegira, of sedition for publishing opinion pieces that speculated about who was behind the attacks.

Just days later, the Ugandan government pushed through the Interception of Communications Bill, which allows the government to tap phone conversations and emails. “The law effectively turns Uganda into one Big Brother house,” columnist Isaac Mufunba wrote.

One of the most pernicious effects of this repression – and one of the most difficult to measure – is self-censorship. Even in the freest democracies, journalists can’t publish everything they know. But, in the majority of African countries, reporters have to weigh every word, every day. There are the extreme examples like Somalia.

All radio stations within the Al-Shabaab controlled area of Somalia practice rigorous self-censorship. Before HornAfrik Radio was ransacked and looted by insurgents late last year, journalists there told us they never reported on conflicts between Al-Shabaab and government troops unless it was a clear case of an Al-Shabaab victory.

In Kenya after the post-election violence two years ago, media feared to report on extra-judicial killings by police. Nation columnist Charles Obbo-Obyang told the CPJ that self-censorship over police violence took hold of reporters after they witnessed the ferocity of the killing and repression.

Even when there is no immediate fear of violence, editors exercise caution. In writing about corruption, they tackle the small fry. Only a few courageous writers progress far up the chain to the political and business elites who cream off a country’s wealth. Among them are editor Abdou Latif Coulibaly, who has taken on Senegal’s elite, exposing corruption in a US$200 million government deal for a telecom licence. He is now facing three separate criminal defamation lawsuits.

Another effect of repression is the haemorrhaging of journalistic talent out of a country. You need look no farther than Zimbabwe. The CPJ has documented at least 48 journalists there who have been forced into exile over the past decade.

Somalia is another country whose press has been gutted as journalists have fled, mainly to Nairobi. And Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rwanda have seen a considerable exodus of independent media. The result is that no voice remains in the home country except that of the government.

And yet the picture is not entirely bleak. There are ways to push back against media repression, and the best people to lead the counter-offensive are journalists themselves.

Whether through trade unions, professional associations or by forming their own press freedom watchdogs, local journalists are getting their grievances aired and punching holes through the wall of government censorship. The South African press and civil society, one of the most vibrant on the continent, has shown this with its mobilisation against repressive media legislation proposed by the ANC.

Journalists are even more effective when they work with outside press freedom organisations like the CPJ. Local journalists provide the CPJ with reporting on attacks on journalists and press freedom violations, which we complement with our own research. We amplify their work, bringing it to the attention of foreign governments and international organisations.

We know what’s wrong with the press in many countries. Media owners are often in league with rulers. Journalists are poorly trained, poorly paid and prone to making sloppy mistakes. Some even take (or demand) bribes to cover or kill stories. But when governments latch on to the unprofessionalism of a few journalists to condemn all media, or accuse outlets of acting like the 1994 Rwandan hate-promoting station Radio Mille Collines, we journalists have a duty to expose it as the threadbare excuse for censorship that it is.

Follow him on Twitter @RobMahoney_CPJ.

This story was first published in the March issue of The Media magazine.