Some African leaders despise journalists. Fearing the emergence of a real opposition force, these leaders are often responsible for the complaints, threats or censorship that restrict press freedom in their countries. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is the most striking example. Backed by his information minister Jonathan Moyo, he made one scandalous statement after another and took more and more repressive measures to silence dissident voices. Togolese President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, aided by his interior minister, Gen. Sizing Walla, seized thousands of copies of opposition newspapers. The leaders of Guinea (Lansana Conté), Eritrea (Issaias Afeworki), Liberia (Charles Taylor) and Guinea-Bissau (Kumba Yala) were also some of the busiest violators of journalists’ rights in 2002.
Africa changed in 2002. Yesterday’s conflicts (Angola and Ethiopia-Eritrea) were replaced by new ones (Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar). But change did not bring improvements in human rights and press freedom. About 180 journalists were deprived of their freedom at one point or another in the year. As many again were threatened or physically attacked and more than 80 news media were censored. It was still difficult to work as a journalist in freedom and security in sub-Saharan Africa. Heads of state, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, generals, police chiefs, police officers and rebels continued to target the press and its representatives.
Nonetheless, there were countries dotted about the continent that showed great respect for press freedom. There were various forms of pressure in these countries, as anywhere in the world, but reporters enjoyed real freedom. No journalists were imprisoned just for doing their job and no news media were shut down for being too critical of the authorities. This was the case in South Africa, Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Mali and Mauritius. Some of these countries are among the poorest in the world. It was further proof that respect for freedom of expression is not limited to the developed, western countries, that respect for human rights is above all a question of political will.
The situation for press freedom was evidently far from uniform throughout the continent. The Horn of Africa was the worst region for journalists. The privately-owned press has ceased to exist in Eritrea. Almost all of its journalists have had to flee. Those who did not manage to escape were arrested. With 18 detainees at the end of 2002, Eritrea ranked with Nepal as the world’s biggest prison for the news media. In Ethiopia, two journalists were still behind bars at the end of the year and more than 80 were being prosecuted. Generalised insecurity and the absence of a central state made Somalia extremely risky for the press. The opposition press had very little leeway in Djibouti.
Southern Africa, once cited as the example to follow as regards freedom of expression, became more and more repressive. In Zimbabwe, Swaziland and, to a lesser extent, Zambia and Malawi, journalists came under attack from the authorities each time they were too critical of their leaders. On the other hand, the end of the war in Angola had positive repercussions for press freedom.
There are little countries scattered around the continent about which little is reported, and they took advantage of this neglect to adopt very restrictive measures. They were Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles and Swaziland. The authorities systematically cracked down on the independent press in these countries and journalists who dared to tackle taboo subjects were routinely threatened.
Persistent threats have been forcing African journalists into exile for years and 2002 was no exception. Dozens fled their countries for refuge in Europe or North America. Their forced departure increased the pressure on the others who stayed and fostered self-censorship.
Economic weapons were increasingly used. Concerned to protect their image abroad, government sometimes hesitated to imprison journalists. So other ways were found to reduce the independent and opposition press to silence. An advertising boycott was used several times in Namibia to stifle an independent newspaper. The courts fined newspapers exorbitant sums in Cameroon, while Seychelles’ only private newspaper faced the possibility of having to pay astronomical amounts in damages to the government.
Alongside repression by the state, the violence from other quarters was increasing in sub-Saharan Africa. Rebel movements, armed groups, political parties and religious groups all became more aggressive toward journalists. The rebellions in the north and east of the Democratic Republic of Congo targeted the news media more often than in the past. Islamist groups in Nigeria have become very hostile to journalists in the past two years and a fatwa was proclaimed against a journalist for the first time in the north of the country in 2002. The rebels in Côte d’Ivoire were also not beyond reproach.
The many messages of ethnic hate carried by newspapers and broadcast media were another source of concern. This became especially worrying in Côte d’Ivoire after the coup attempt of 19 September 2002, when the ultranationalist newspapers raged against foreigners, especially the Bukinabés and French. The state-owned broadcast media in the Democratic Republic of Congo were often accused of carrying anti-Rwandan propaganda. These excesses were a serious challenge to the organisations that monitor press ethics and practices. Often cited as the best remedy for such problems, the media watchdogs revealed their limits and their inability to cope with large-scale crises in 2002.
Impunity was still the rule in sub-Saharan Africa. The authorities proved too often reluctant to conduct thorough investigations into the murders or disappearances of journalists. The case of Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso was a typical example. But the judiciary worked well in some cases and seemed determined to put an end to impunity. The start of the trial of Carlos Cardoso’s presumed killers in Mozambique offered hope, while investigations into murders of journalists in Nigeria and Uganda were also encouraging signs.