The press freedom situation worsened considerably in 2001 in sub-Saharan Africa where many countries have taken harsh new measures against basic human rights. Eritrea and Zimbabwe are unquestionably the most repressive states on the continent in respect of press freedom. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all hopes of an improvement in the situation under Joseph Kabila were soon dashed. Despite a relative improvement at the end of the year, about 30 journalists have been arrested since the new president came into power.
The number of predators of press freedom denounced by Reporters Without Borders has increased in sub-Saharan Africa. The heads of state or government of Eritrea, Swaziland, Togo and Zimbabwe have been added to the list, along with those of Angola, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The brother of the Burkina Faso president, clearly implicated in the Zongo affair, is also on this list.
Unlike previous years, in 2001 journalists were spared in African wars. Yet four journalists were killed on the continent during the year. On 1 January 2002 it is impossible to say whether their deaths were directly related to their work as journalists. In Burkina Faso the death of Michel Congo in October did not cause the same wave of protests as that which shook the country after Norbert Zongo’s murder in December 1998. Several local media did, however, call for the creation of an independent commission of inquiry. In Angola a journalist with a public-sector radio station was killed in June by a political official. The reasons for this act are unknown. Two other journalists were killed, one in South Africa and one in Nigeria.
Almost all murders of journalists in sub-Saharan African have remained unsolved. Impunity is still the rule and dozens of murderers of journalists are still free in Angola, Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, to mention only the most recent cases. The only exception is Mozambique where it seems that the inquiry into the murder of Carlos Cardoso in November 2000 is leading somewhere. Six suspects have been arrested and charged. For once the people behind the murder as well as the actual killers have been identified and arrested and are to stand trial.
The most glaring deterioration has been in southern Africa. In Zimbabwe about 20 local journalists were arrested during the year and three correspondents of foreign media expelled. At the end of the year the authorities repeatedly made alarming declarations and threats to the local and international press. The government has been trying, in every possible way, to control information both at home and abroad. In Swaziland Mswati III rules over the last absolute monarchy in Africa. In a context of generalised censorship, freedom of expression is very limited. In 2001 the young monarch ordered the suspension of the two main private-sector newspapers in the country. In July he signed a decree giving him a free hand to censor the media. However, under international pressure and threats of suspension of certain economic aid, he cancelled part of the decree.
The Horn of Africa, where journalists work in extremely difficult conditions, is still a cause for serious concern. The private-sector press has been virtually non-existent in Eritrea since a government-decision in September 2001, and is severely limited in Djibouti. Almost all Eritrean journalists are either behind bars or in exile. Although several journalists were released in Ethiopia, many others have been charged and could be arrested at any time. Lastly, in Somalia journalists have to work in context in which the state as such has collapsed and warlords are in control. Once again, about ten media professionals were forced into exile during the year.
The number of journalists arrested in sub-Saharan Africa increased again in 2001. Over 180 journalists were behind bars at some stage during the year. The "record-holder" is the Democratic Republic of Congo where 27 journalists were arrested. Next on the list are Zimbabwe with 20 journalists arrested, Kenya, with 18, and Tanzania, with 11. In most cases the journalists concerned were detained for no longer than 48 hours. Often journalists have complained about their conditions of detention. In Kinshasa, for example, the editor-in-chief of a satirical weekly was whipped by prison guards. In the Central African Republic Aboukary Tembeley, managing editor of the Journal des droits de l’homme (a human rights publication), was beaten up in jail. He consequently had to be hospitalised for one week and to receive treatment abroad.
On 1 January 2002, 18 media professionals are still behind bars in Africa. Eight of them have been detained at the Asmara N°1 police station, in Eritrea, since September 2001. Eight others are in various jails in Rwanda. One journalist is still imprisoned in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, and another in Moroni in the Comoros. Furthermore, five Eritrean journalists are missing and are believed either to be detained in secret or to have gone underground to escape arrest.
It is important to mention that there were some releases in 2001. In Ethiopia four journalists imprisoned since 1997 were released for a "lack of evidence". In Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo journalists jailed for several months were pardoned by the president and released. In the Comoros the manager of a privately-owned radio station was released after serving his 14-month sentence.
In several countries foreign journalists found themselves in the ruler’s firing line. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe ordered the expulsion of three foreign correspondents and tried to push a bill through parliament forcing international media to employ local journalists. In Liberia correspondents for foreign and especially English-language media are regularly accused of spying for their respective governments.
The number of media censored also increased during the year. Independent newspapers were closed in Liberia and Gabon. In Monrovia the authorities used overdue taxes as an excuse to temporarily suspend a title, while in Libreville the national communication council used questionable legal arguments to continue its harassment of the satirical newspaper La Griffe which became Gri-Gri International. In Kenya the director of the Citizen group (a privately-owned radio station and television channel) struggled throughout the year, in vain, to obtain a licence to resume broadcasts suspended in April. In Togo several thousand copies of privately-owned newspapers were seized and destroyed by the police. Censorship took on a more discreet form in other countries. In Botswana and Namibia independent newspapers were victims of an advertising boycott by the government. In both cases the authorities ordered their administrative services and state-owned companies not to buy advertising space in certain titles judged too critical of the government. In Windhoek the president himself asked government institutions to cancel their subscription to the privately-owned The Namibian.
Election campaigns are traditionally characterised by repression of opposition media and the year 2001 was no exception. In Chad the communication regulatory authority announced in April that "throughout the 2001 presidential campaign, all political debate or debate of a political nature is banned on radios belonging to private concerns, associations or communities". On election day the interior minister threatened private-sector media with "sanctions". In Zambia, a few months before the elections, the programme manager of national television asked for the cancellation of a programme in which politicians were to discuss current events in the country. Journalists are going to have to be particularly careful in 2002 during presidential elections scheduled in the Comoros, the Congo, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
To conclude, the international community has multiplied its declarations condemning the practices of certain regimes which flout press freedom. The situation in Eritrea, Liberia and Zimbabwe has been publicly denounced by the European Union and the embassies of western countries. Yet no firm measures have been taken. While a very small number of countries have suspended their bilateral economic aid, inter-governmental organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie or the Commonwealth are reluctant to take real sanctions against countries which fail to observe human rights.