Press freedom too often remains just a frustrated hope in Africa. Journalists pay with their blood or their freedom for the despotism that continues in some countries. Censorship and intimidation are weapons still widely used by governments. Death threats are common. Self-censorship is widespread and taken for granted. And hate media have even resurfaced.
It was a year of mourning for Reporters Without Borders. Its correspondent in Gambia, Deyda Hydara, was shot dead by gunmen on the night of 16 December. It was the first time one of the organization’s correspondents has been murdered. He was the co-editor of The Point and the local correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP). He was also one of the most widely-read government critics and was read within the government, whose young president has never hidden his contempt for independent newspapers.
Free expression’s grey zones
A third year of silence and fear came and went in Eritrea. The last foreign correspondent left the country and the 14 journalists who were imprisoned in 2001 continued to be held in a secret location, without trial. But the international community did not seem too concerned.
In Zimbabwe, the Daily News tried everything to reappear. In vain. President Robert Mugabe’s regime again found a way to get new, draconian laws passed by a submissive parliament.
In Côte d’Ivoire, journalists often doubled as combatants or ended up prison or had to go underground. In a country torn by hate, they became enmeshed in political violence. Guy-André Kieffer, a French-Canadian journalist who was investigating corruption in the cocoa trade, disappeared in April. A correspondent for the progovernment daily Le Courrier d’Abidjan was fatally injured during violent clashes between French peacekeepers and Ivorian troops and civilians in November. In a media world aswirl with public condemnation and calumny, a few journalists tried with difficulty to keep their heads. A year after the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) convicted some of those who had been running RadioTélévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) at the time of the genocide, part of the Ivorian press was playing a dangerous game, prompting the UN to voice concern about a reappearance of "hate media."
The large number of privately-owned media in the Democratic Republic of Congo did not suffice to mask the often dangerous amateurism with which some of them worked. Congolese journalists are still too often the victims of a culture of despotism and violence even in times of peace. When the war resumed the press suffered like other civilians.
The repressive reflexes of aging regimes
The plight of press freedom may be less dramatic but just as worrying under aging regimes. In Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Paul Biya’s Cameroon, in Lesotho and in Mauritania, the authorities used their police, their army and their easily swayed judiciary to express their irritation with the media.
In Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, the state did not stop prosecuting the only really critical newspaper and its journalists were followed by government agents. In this country that was so tragically scarred by hate media in the past, press freedom is virtually inexistent.
Opposition journalists were often thrown into jail in Sudan under repressive laws that permit inordinately long periods of preventive custody.
Even if the independent press including the satirical press was allowed a little leeway, Lansana Conté’s Guinea still harassed some independent journalists and often censored newspapers that irked a strict and inflexible National Council of Communication.
In Equatorial Guinea, the powerful pro-government press constantly attacked the weak opposition, if need be, exploiting racial prejudices.
In Swaziland, a poor little kingdom ruled by an eccentric young king, the staff of the state media had to sing the regime’s praises on pain of dismissal.
The situation was paradoxical in Tanzania, where a reasonable degree of respect for press freedom on the mainland contrasted with the behaviour of the authoritarian government running the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, which never stopped trying to throttle the weekly Dira, the island’s only independent newspaper, until it was finally forced to close.
Zanzibar has parallels with Seychelles where the opposition weekly Regar was often assailed by the judiciary, and with Djibouti where the weekly Le Renouveau was constantly harassed by the government. In Madagascar, the overlapping of politics and news media is a source of problems and court actions against certain opposition radio stations continued to cast a shadow over an otherwise relatively free climate.
Four years in prison under the UN’s eyes
In countries such as Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, Zambia and Lesotho, incidents involving the media are often the repressive outbursts of fragile regimes that cannot stand criticism. Or a feature of societies subject to social violence such as Kenya. One of the worst press freedom violations took place in a country in full democratic transition, under the eyes of a local UN mission that was supposed to be promoting human rights. This was in Sierra Leone in October, when a leading journalist, Paul Kamara was sentenced to four years in prison for libel after being sued by the president.
All this chaos should not obscure the fact that Africa also has democracies that are relatively stable despite their poverty. In South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, for example, press freedom is comparable to what prevails in European countries. In Benin, Cape Verde and Mali, the governments show their journalists some respect and no significant violation was registered in 2004. An end to fighting between rebels and government and a transition process brought a marked improvement in the situation of journalists in both Burundi and Liberia, although tension endured. And the situation continued to improve steadily in Angola after years of devastating civil war.
There has been a clear trend in recent years for African countries to fall into line with modern democracies and decriminalize press offences. The Central African Republic did it under strong pressure from its journalists, a few months after Togo did it under strong European Union pressure at a time when independent journalists who criticised Gen. Eyadema’s government were subject to repeated death threats. Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade promised it for 2004 after a leading journalist was imprisoned during the summer, sparking outcry in the press.
Impunity for Norbert Zongo’s killers
Ending impunity for the killers of journalists is fundamental, and countries that bring those responsible for political crimes to justice derive obvious benefits in terms of stability and confidence in their governments. The trial of Carlos Cardoso’s killers in Mozambique have begun to heal the wounds of a badly-scarred society.
Unfortunately this was not the case in Burkina Faso where, six years after Norbert Zongo’s murder, the judicial system’s inexplicable paralysis keeps suspicion hanging over President Blaise Compaoré and his associates.
Despite police violence, political instability and judicial excesses, some African journalists continue to do honour to their profession. In dismembered Somalia, for example, where businessmen, militias and Islamic courts have constituted the sole authority for 13 years, several privately-owned radio stations and newspapers continue to inform the public and maintain the links of common language and social life that unite a population otherwise abandoned to itself and anarchy. In Nigeria, a vigorous, insolent and courageous independent press confronts the feared federal police, clan battles and extreme violence that corrupt its society.
It is a challenge to be a journalist in Africa. The profession has risks, including the risk of sinking into irresponsibility. Those who have not yielded are all the more commendable and courageous.