In Africa, impunity is not a matter of bad luck, it is the general rule. In Burkina Faso, those who murdered journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 spend their days in tranquility. The investigation has been stalled by the law of silence that surrounds the presidential guard and François Compaoré, the brother of the president, who has been implicated in this case. In Gambia, the killers of Deyda Hydara, gunned down in 2004, have every reason to enjoy peace of mind. They run absolutely no risk of arrest. President Yahya Jammeh is too busy sullying the memory of the victim, as well as humiliating and threatening journalists. Nothing has been heard of Guy-André Kieffer, kidnapped in Cote d’Ivoire in April 2004, since he fell into a trap set by Michel Legré, the brother-in-law of the wife of President Laurent Gbagbo. Released after 18 months in custody, Michel Legré has pointed the finger at the head of state’s entourage. But the French magistrates appointed to the case have failed to complete their investigation, in a politically poisonous climate. Even in Mozambique, where the murderers of Carlos Cardoso, who was ambushed in 2000, received heavy sentences, the wounds caused by this tragedy have still not fully healed. It is still not known whether the son of the former president Joachim Chissano, Nyimpine, has any link with the case. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Acquitté Kisembo, who worked for Agence France-Presse, is still posted as “missing”. But he was almost certainly murdered by one of the militias that operate in the east of the country.
Impunity is also political. Countries systematically crack down on the press without being called to account by anyone. For more than five years, a closed and gagged Eritrea has been an open air prison. The least hint of opposition is punished by imprisonment. Thirteen journalists were sent to languish in jail, in a climate of general indifference, one week after 11 September 2001. But the threat of a new war with Ethiopia has allowed President Issaias Afeworki to escape any sanctions. As for the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, a nationalist autocrat who brooks no discordant voices, benefits from the benevolent protection of Thabo Mbeki, president of a South Africa that has become the continent’s superpower. Rather than support democratic movements, the country of Nelson Mandela prefers to play the role of guardian to a despot in the name of African sovereignty. The Democratic Republic of Congo has experienced a wave of murders of journalists which have not caught the attention of the UN or the European Union, both busy organising elections. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in Ethiopia, for his part, viewed demonstrations in November as an attempted armed insurrection organised by the opposition and its press. In an immediate reaction, opposition leaders and editors of some newspapers were arrested and faced with charges of extreme gravity, not to say absurdity, notwithstanding the fact that Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union. In Rwanda, the government and party of Paul Kagame use and abuse draconian laws and the fear of “sedition” to hound any journalists who are too independent for their taste. The people’s gacaca courts set up to try some of those charged with genocide, are sometimes used for score-settling. No country dares challenge the government directly, relations with the international community are still marked by the horrifying memory of the 1994 genocide. As for the “hate media” of Cote d’Ivoire, they continue to bellow their message freely in a country that has been paralysed and corrupted by civil war. Moderate journalists have to rub along with intolerable colleagues. In Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea no excuses need to be given for the desert for freedoms that the government runs. No-one talks about freedom of the press to the head of “Africa’s Kuwait”. In the small kingdom of Swaziland of the absolute monarch Mswati III, freedom of press is a fantasy. Publishing the truth is a crime and that does not appear to bother anyone.
Even if Nigeria has left behind the dark years of the military juntas, journalists can only suffer in silence the state security’s beatings and heavy-handed searches. Nothing is done to oblige the police to respect press freedom, for which the government displays a sovereign indifference. To a lesser extent, police officers in Gabon and Guinea can continue to beat journalists doing their job; since these are the orders they are given. On the other side of the continent, the new government in Somalia is trying to rebuild a nation on the basis of an archipelago of domains defended by armies of the unemployed. But the clan chiefs have no hesitation in attacking journalists who inform the people despite the anarchy. At the best they are banished. At the worst they have them killed.
African journalists are also confronted with that other form of impunity that is injustice, whereby the guilty can be rewarded and the innocent punished. In countries such Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, Madagascar, Uganda, Malawi, Seychelles, Zambia, Lesotho, Niger, Chad and Sierra Leone, defamation or publishing false news are considered to be crimes. On the basis of one
complaint and if the person lodging it should be influential or have influential allies, the police take a cunning pleasure in arresting journalists as if they were robbers. No matter that the subsequent trials prove them innocent. They will have been in prison for 24 hours or for several weeks. Where corruption is the general rule, the best way to avoid being thrown into a prison cell is to applaud ministers, officials and businessmen.
Reporters Without Borders has not let up in its pleas to governments to put an end to these practices and change their laws. Togo, Angola, and the Central African Republic have done so and are better for it. The press, which regulates itself through representative bodies, has acquired responsibility and relations with government are no longer marked with rancour and the spirit of revenge. The problems that continue to beset the press are more likely to be linked to a heritage of violence and political hatreds that sometimes make journalists the targets of those who are unaccustomed to the rules of democracy. The governments of Senegal, Madagascar and Niger, have frequently made convincing sounding promises to decriminalise press offences - but only later, when they no longer feel the need to send the police to punish journalists who have crossed the “red lines”.
Freedom in a few places
Some governments prefer to allow the status quo to continue on the convenient pretext that they have to deal with situations in which violence can easily be stoked up. They fail to understand that it is injustice that creates the danger. Others, like Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Burundi, Ghana, Liberia, the Comoros and Congo-Brazzaville, ensure a satisfactory degree of press freedom despite episodes of violence and harassment. In cases brought before the courts, the law is applied with care and relative fairness. As a result, press offences do not give rise to the international reactions provoked by the imprisonment of a journalist, who whether admirable or mediocre, automatically becomes a martyr. Prison sentences for press offences are disproportionate and counter-productive.
African governments seem to have understood. The 3 August palace revolution in Mauritania brought to power a team who set their goal as creating a democracy to replace the “private domain” of ousted president Maaouiya Ould Taya. It is a mammoth task that includes justice and law reform, in which Reporters Without Borders is actively taking part, alongside journalists in a country that was one of the most repressive on the continent. The situation in Chad has opened up after a dark year for the press. Following an on-the-spot investigation, while four journalists were in prison, Reporters Without Borders suggested an amendment to the law and negotiations between the journalists’ union and the government have begun, in a political context that is nevertheless extremely dangerous. In Sudan, where guns still do the talking, the formation of a government of national unity has allowed President Omar al-Bashir to take a historic step - abolishing emergency laws and lifting censorship. Pressure produces results.
But these areas of progress are rare and fragile. Solidarity with Africa is not just a question of food and money. Solidarity should also mean insistence on the rule of law. To close one’s eyes to trampled freedoms, to get used to violence, become inured to political murders, is to approve them and accept that there are people deserving of justice and others deserving of oppression. In Gambia, a Reporters Without Borders representative was told by a friend of Deyda Hydara, “If you forget us, they will do what they want with us”.
2006 Africa annual report