2007 Africa Annual Report
Contempt towards journalists and towards the treaties they have signed up to was a constant factor in many African states in 2006. Governance by contempt and crackdown is, especially since 2001, how the authorities do things in Eritrea, which is secretly holding at least 17 journalists in a variety of appalling prisons scattered around the country. After credible reports filtered out of the probable death of three of them, the reaction of the authorities in one of the world’s most closed countries was a terse, “no comment”. Many of the few remaining journalists to have escaped arrest tried to flee the country, for which some of them had fought during the war of independence and which today treats them as enemies. In neighbouring Ethiopia, around 20 newspaper publishers and editors are still imprisoned, accused of “high treason” for having backed an opposition challenge to the May 2005 election results. Neither the international outcry nor the protests of its western allies have been heeded by the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which has put out callous statements about the prisoners, one of whom gave birth to a baby boy in the prison infirmary. In Somalia, journalists have been embarrassing witnesses to a war shot through with disinformation and lies. They have been arrested, beaten up or murdered without hesitation. The Islamic courts and the transitional government prided themselves on respecting press freedom while inflicting particularly brutal treatment on the media with a disdain that nothing can shake.
Even in Kenya, East Africa’s foremost democracy, a newspaper was the target of contempt by a hard-pressed government, undergoing a terrifying raid and hostile statements from several officials. In Uganda, at the start of the year, Yoweri Museveni’s government was prompted by the fight to hold on to power to maintain tight control of news during the election period, going so far as to expel a foreign correspondent, which saw as nothing less than a “threat to the state”. The contempt for news also pushed the government in Sudan to twice accuse foreign journalists reporting on massacres in Darfur of being spies. Both were held hostage for several weeks and only released after intense political negotiations putting the state under pressure from the international community, proving the absurdity of the initial accusations. Finally, Zimbabwe is still one of the countries where the profession of journalist is an extremely tough one. Because, not content with insisting that all journalists must be registered, filed and kept under surveillance by an Orwellian commission, the Zimbabwean government does its utmost to silence media which fail to sing its praises.
Press freedom is sometimes, as in Chad, a gain that the government has no hesitation in calling into question, when it considers national security to be at stake. Faced with rebel movements with little inclination for openness, Chadian press barons are also forced under a state of emergency to bring out papers disfigured by black strips imposed by the censorship bureau, according to the whim of a few dutiful officials.
Contempt also makes itself felt in how little importance political or financial authorities accord to the press. Thus, the election campaign proved a painful episode for the press in the Democratic Republic of Congo, already regularly hit in the past by aberrant legislation applied with zeal by police and a justice system eaten through with corruption. Some journalists in Kinshasa are not exempt from criticism however, readily doing the bidding of a few generous donors anxious to smear their adversaries or turning themselves into the little foot soldiers of political heavyweights. Easily manipulated or vulnerable, the reporter can fall prey to politicians avid for power. This sad evidence was still the rule in Nigeria in 2006, where police and intelligence services, or more generally all those in uniform, took a sly pleasure in physically attacking journalists who displease them.
On the west of the continent, for the 12th successive year, president of the tiny country of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, continued to treat journalists with aggressive condescension. His all-powerful intelligence services arrested and ill-treated at least ten journalists, forcibly closed two newspapers and threatened all those who in any way embarrassed their absolute leader, the president of the Republic. This meant added humiliation for the Gambian press, which has to live and work with the memory of the still unpunished murder of its doyen, Deyda Hydara, killed in 2004 in disturbing circumstances. Journalists in Burkina Faso have for eight years now mourned the death of Norbert Zongo, murdered with three companions in 1998. While many have accused the presidential guard and the brother of head of state, François Compaore, the Burkinabe justice system, evidently very easy to influence, dared to dismiss the case against the chief suspect, virtually sneaking the news out in the middle of summer, in a clear indication of the indifference of the authorities for the journalist’s family’s thirst for justice. In Cote d’Ivoire, journalists who chose not to give allegiance to one of the belligerents become their favourite target. In January, for the second time in two years, the “Young Patriots” seized control of public media, to back up and organise their riots in the streets of Abidjan. Kebe Yacouba, who tried to make state radio and television an example of public service journalism, had insults and threats heaped on him before being abruptly sacked by President Laurent Gbagbo. The family of French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer, kidnapped in Abidjan in 2004 and missing ever since, have to live with this particularly unpromising climate for the progress of the French judicial investigation, which has implicated the first circle of the presidency. For Deyda Hydara, Norbert Zongo and Guy-André Kieffer, denial of justice is also a form of contempt.
Governments which insist in keeping prison sentences for press offences in their legislation can show their disdain for journalists at their leisure. The easy pretext of citing media “responsibility”, even if sometimes used advisedly, has sent more than one journalist to a prison cell for having questioned the integrity of the powerful. The most striking example of this unequal struggle between a newspaper and the government occurred this year in Niger, when the publisher and editor of an opposition paper spent more than four months in prison for having criticised the prime minister’s policies. When governments backed by the police, the justice system and the prison administration attacks journalists there is a clear imbalance of power. In Burundi, in 2006, the head of the presidential party, Hussein Radjabu, a dominant and controversial figure did not hide his hatred of privately-owned radio stations, guilty in his eyes of criticising his abuses and manoeuvring. Several journalists chose to leave the country for their own protection. Four, on the other hand, did not have the time to realise that the authorities would graduate from verbal hostility to action and as a result spend several months in prison before being acquitted.
Most of these countries are however signatories of a raft of treaties guaranteeing civil and political freedoms. Almost all of them base their authority on constitutions protecting freedom of expression. But, as in Equatorial Guinea or the kingdom of Swaziland, where the head of state is considered to be a demigod, these promises have very little value for governments who clearly despise not just journalists but their own signatures.
Some promises kept
For all these reasons, Reporters Without Borders can only welcome the fact that there is one African government which kept its promises. The military junta in power in Mauritania since 2005 had promised to guarantee press freedom, legislative reform, to respect the balance of political forces during elections, to free the state-owned press from too much government control and to treat the independent press as a development partner. In 2006 it did all this.
For all that, it should not be imagined that the African continent is a collection of tyrannies and makeshift democracies. In the South African zone of influence, for example, Namibia and Botswana guarantee a satisfactory level of press freedom, with many deficiencies but nevertheless comparable to western democracies. The same goes for the African islands and archipelagos such as Mauritius, São Tomé and Principe or Cape Verde, which appear havens of freedom off the coast of a troubled continent. The Comoros is also gradually recovering from its dark years. This is also the case of Mozambique where, in an outcome rare enough in Africa to be highlighted, the killers of journalist Carlos Cardoso, who was murdered in 2000 while investigating a wide-ranging financial scandal, received heavy sentences.
The best weapon against contempt is patience. In Africa, governments who despise journalists and who place no value on promises they have given, have to live on the defensive. Their power ends up by crumbling. Support gets scarcer. The blows are getting harder. Sooner or later, a solution has to be found. Dictatorships end up by falling and journalists by coming out of prison. A country which is being stifled must have press freedom to be able to breathe again.