2003 was not a particularly good year for press freedom in Africa. Two journalists were killed in Côte d’Ivoire and a third was probably executed in Democratic Republic of Congo. There were many arrests and the independent press was in the process of disappearing in several countries.
The wars and intermittent fighting in some African countries played a major role in this decline. The dangers increased for journalists in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo. The regular armies and the many rebel movements or militia operating in these countries attached growing importance to news control and posed an especial threat for both local and foreign reporters. It is becoming more and more dangerous to cover a war in Africa.
Journalists also counted among the targets of systematic repression by the aging regimes of leaders clinging to power. In Paul Biya’s Cameroon, Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Lansana Conté’s Guinea, Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s Togo and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the press was the victim of authoritarianism and a resistence to change. These leaders were increasingly intolerant towards an opposition and independent press and did everything possible to control news and information, using either strong-arms methods as in Zimbabwe, or more insidious procedures as in Gabon and Rwanda. Having had to endure the stubborn advocacy of open democratic systems by independent newspapers since the start of the 1990s, they have all dug in their heels at calls for the liberalisation of broadcasting. The state has kept a monopoly of radio and TV broadcasting in some 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The state media are closely monitored. Their journalists are subject to considerable pressure from their superiors and government officials. Several journalists are unfairly dismissed each year for not toeing the line set by the minister in charge of the media. In Swaziland, for example, the staff of the state radio and TV broadcaster are not allowed to interview the opposition or criticise the king, on pain of instant dismissal. In Zimbabwe, the state-owned press takes its orders from the powerful information minister, Jonathan Moyo, and has no compunction about launching blistering attacks on the privately-owned media. In many countries, the state radio and television are especially subservient and biased in favour of the ruling party during election campaigns.
Press diversity under threat
The independent press is an endangered species in Africa. Worrying examples include the closure of the Daily News in Zimbabwe, the closure of several news media in Gabon, the continuing ban on any privately-owned press in Eritrea, the harassment of the only opposition newspaper in Djibouti and the censorship that was temporarily imposed on radio stations in Burundi and Chad. As well as direct, brutal censorship, more subtle methods were also used to silence discordant voices. Opposition newspapers were bought up by the government, others were created by the same rulers to give the impression of press diversity and the governments of several countries withdrew advertising from the most critical media.
The exodus of African journalists continued. Each year, more and more of them are fleeing the threats and reprisals that make their work impossible. Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo are gradually losing their reporters, sometimes resulting in the closure of newspapers or radio stations.
At the same time, press freedom has declined in countries that were traditionally cited as examples of modernity and respect for the rule of law. Free expression suffered serious setbacks in Niger and Senegal in 2003. The expulsion of RFI’s correspondent in Dakar and the closure of 10 privately-owned radio stations in Niger followed by the jailing in Niamey of one of its most famous journalists were clears signs of an increasing readiness to crack down on the press. Although less serious, the arrest of three journalists for the first time in many years in Mali served as a reminder there that press freedom can never be taken for granted.
Convictions in hate media trial
The spotlight was also on hate media in 2003. For the first time since the end of World War II and the Nuremberg trials, journalists were convicted of inciting murder and violence. Three former leading journalists with Rwandan news media received sentences ranging from 35 years to life imprisonment for "inciting genocide" in 1994. These convictions by the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) were the culmination of years of judicial investigation and procedure aimed at establishing the responsibility of certain radio and print media in hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was hoped these sentences would be a warning to those who continue to put out hate messages elsewhere in Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, several newspapers often cast oil on the flames, stirring up hatred towards foreigners and pitting communities against each other. Despite several calls to order by the United Nations and European Union, the situation had not improved at the end of 2003.
Nonetheless, there was one positive development. The fight against impunity bore fruit for the first time in Africa. Six people received long prison sentences in January 2003 at the end of an exemplary trial for the murder of journalist Carlos Cardoso in Mozambique. The case is worthy of note, and should serve as a model for other African countries to follow. It should also be a warning to the murderers of journalists who are still at large in Angola, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and elsewhere that they, too, will one day have to answer for their actions.
Jean-François Julliard, News editor at Reporters Without Borders