Africa - Annual report 2008
African governments in 2007 began doing what they had not dared to do before. Boundaries they would not previously have crossed, to crack down on journalists who annoyed them, were all removed. Free of hang-ups, several information ministers spent the year defending a certain idea of Africa - one with the face of repression. The press is disrespectful ; it must be punished. Journalists are making demands ; they must be gagged. Even in Mali and Benin, countries hitherto viewed as models of respect for press freedom, presidents Amadou Toumani Touré and Yayi Boni have at least once in 2007 picked up the phone to send displeasing journalists to prison. In both these cases, the heads of state have acknowledged their decisions. The year was thus one of bare-faced repression, in which they openly freed themselves from promises made. Government by effrontery.
For some it’s a habit. President of the young republic of Eritrea, Issaias Afeworki, guilty of imprisoning his former companions in arms and journalists who did not have the good fortune to escape the police, dismissed press questions about human rights in his country with utter contempt while on a visit to Europe in May. He could do so without fear, because apart from the United States, very few go in for much criticism of him. Democratic governments say they are impotent in the face of his brutality. During this time, Eritrea, which over the years has become an open air prison, has seen the country emptied of its people. Those who have not died in the inhuman conditions in prison camps have fled, on foot, to seek refuge anywhere, including in poverty and death. His rival, Meles Zenawi, prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, has continued to treat the press in Addis Ababa with huge disdain. Even if, under pressure from his US allies, he agreed to release journalists arrested in the roundups of November 2005 during opposition demonstrations in protest at a stolen election a few months earlier.
In Zimbabwe and Gambia, presidents Robert Mugabe and Yahya Jammeh have not released the stranglehold of their intelligence services on an independent press which has been left injured and humiliated. President Joseph Kabila, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has never had much time for unwanted witnesses or the thorns in the foot which journalists represent to him. This year, the authorities reacted with disdainful indifference even to those murdered by unidentified killers, like Serge Maheshe, of Radio Okapi. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, the head of the transitional government in Somalia, which has been atomised by 17 years of anarchy, has let the military off the leash and they have set about arresting journalists who get in their way. At the same time, others have been murdered by hired killers, in the pay of the leaders of the Islamic Courts from their comfortable exile in the Eritrean capital Asmara.
In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame keeps a nervous eye on the few newspapers which his government and his allies do not yet control, to ensure they are subjected to sufficient intimidation to keep silent. For their part, the despots Teodoro Obiang Nguéma in Equatorial Guinea and Ismael Omar Guelleh in Djibouti do not need to worry about disobedient editors. They make do with the sycophancy of the public media. All those who fail to publicly fawn on them will end up with their personal file on the desks of the chief of police or the chief prosecutor.
Disgrace and prison
If African “predators” of press freedom have not yet given it up, men in power who were believed to be above all suspicion have demonstrated that journalists are not always free on the continent. This includes leaders who were thought to have been convinced of the benefits that can accrue to a poor country from a diversity of news, from harnessing public debate, public transparency and the vigilance of demanding citizens. Confronted with a revolt which he refuses to recognise as a political movement, the President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, has imprisoned and tried several Niger and foreign journalists, who took too close an interest in the “drug traffickers” who have humiliated the army in the Air mountains. His determination not to see the Tuareg question referred to - a crisis which is undermining his fragile democracy - has ended by prompting huge international interest in the subject.
From presidents like José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, Idriss Deby Itno in Chad, Omar al-Beshir in Sudan and Omar Bongo in Gabon, for example, one expected no more than that they stop treating the state as their personal possession and the country’s journalists like their servants. But even there, argument has failed to convince the powerful, because in all these countries, journalists have been arrested, often brutally, faced frequently absurd charges and imprisonment, which is always unpleasant. These heads of state are not despots or comic opera kings, but they have violated their constitutions that guarantee freedom of the press, promises to funders and democratic standards promoted by the United Nations, with modernity, refinement and supported by administrative sophistication - with the light heart of an official, who always has to give some justification.
African journalists - perpetually facing charges of “defamation”, “publication of false new”, “damaging imputations”, “insulting the head of state”, harming national security, “sedition”, “incitement to disturb the public order” or who knows what - have to manage their own cases alone. Innocent or guilty, they have experienced the filth of a prison cell. Their families, whose chief characteristic is not to be rich, have to manage on their own resources while their breadwinner is unable to earn money.
Yes, across the continent, chiefly in the French-speaking part, there are numerous scandal sheets, which feed on ordinary corruption, chasing spectacular headlines and “little envelopes”. But the politicians, from Madagascar to Mauritania, from Guinea to Cameroun, via Cote d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, are the main beneficiaries, making use of badly or unpaid journalists to settle their scores with opponents through bogus “revelations”. They do it because they have the means to do so and they can get way with it. Disgrace and prison are for others. Absurd logic, unjust justice.
Freedom of the press in Africa was badly damaged in 2007. On at least 12 occasions during the year, men received orders to kill journalists. Police received orders on almost 150 occasions to make an arrest, not of a corrupt minister or a notorious killer but of a journalist. Even governments of countries in which Reporters Without Borders had invested some hope in previous years, have brought instruments of repression to bear against the press. Outside certain countries, like Ghana or Namibia, among others, the year was marked by a general setback. What exactly happened ?
The ever greater penetration of China, oppressive superpower if ever there was one, allowed some African governments to marginalise their western support. Encumbered by vociferous NGOs and virtuous political demands, democratic countries stand no chance against Beijing’s free-flowing dollars and multinationals, which send Chinese workers to supervise the building sites of African infrastructure without demanding anything in return. And then when it comes to repression, China has become an expert in it. It is Chinese technicians who scramble the signals of opposition radios in Zimbabwe. In addition, the difficulty in shedding the criminal past of the former colonial powers has been given a fresh impetus in the African nationalist revival. How many French ambassadors have been sent away with a flea in their ear, in the name of rejection of “French-Africa”, when they have attempted to negotiate the release of a journalist ? Chinese ambassadors do not have this problem. How many African journalists or foreign reporters have been accused of being British spies in Zimbabwe ? We would be wrong not to take these insinuations seriously. At the start of 2008, a fanatical newspaper in Abidjan tarnished the memory of Jean Hélène, a correspondent for RFI who was killed in a cowardly attack by a gendarme in October 2003, in claiming that he was working for French intelligence at the time.
African media, like a crumbling dam, have taken in water. Taboos have been proudly broken. A host of questions which are vital for the future of press freedom on the continent remain unanswered after this very testing year.
Africa desk head