By Uta Melzer
Africa’s journalists have long operated in difficult circumstances, and 2008 was no exception.
Leaders in much of the continent demonstrated a low tolerance for scrutiny -- particularly when it involved their physical health or came from popular songwriters. Defamation and sedition charges were common. Calls for increased statutory regulation also proved popular, and authorities showed that licensing requirements can be abused in multiple ways. Physical violence remained a serious threat, costing five African journalists their lives.
Eritrea’s government distinguished itself as one of the world’s most brutal suppressors of independent reporting. Many of the journalists arrested in sweeping crackdowns in 2001 and 2006 not only remained in detention, but new reports indicated that more individuals than previously thought are involved. Estimates of those who have died in custody also rose, with at least four feared dead.
IPI’s Justice Denied Campaign highlights the plight of those who remain in jail, for whom time may very well be running out. Reporters Without Borders has called for a visa ban for President Isaias Afewerki and other senior government members. The European Union in September issued a statement "profoundly deploring" the situation, and urged the government to disclose information about, and permit some access to, the prisoners.
By contrast, plenty of news emerged from The Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh’s regime aggressively pursued dissenters. Working from abroad provided no amnesty. Fatou Jaw Manneh, a Gambian journalist living in the United States, was prosecuted for a critical article published online in 2005. Proceedings against Manneh, arrested during a March 2007 visit, were dragged out for over one year. In August, she was convicted of sedition and sentenced to four years in prison or a fine of about US$12,000. Manneh avoided prison by raising the necessary amount.
Yahya Dampha, exiled in Senegal, only narrowly escaped dire consequences when his neighbours foiled a kidnapping attempt by suspected agents of the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Dampha testified as a witness at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, Nigeria, in the case of Ebrima Manneh, a "disappeared" Gambian journalist. In March, five state agents summoned by the ECOWAS court defied its order to make an appearance. In June, the court ordered that Manneh be released and paid compensation, finding that he was arrested in July 2006 and since held incommunicado. As of the end of 2008, the government had failed to comply, and Manneh was feared dead.
Independent voices were also muzzled by simply denying them access to events of public interest, such as the annual opening of parliament and ongoing court proceedings. But journalists working for pro-government publications such as the Daily Observer were not immune. A stringer was dismissed after he was elected as an executive member of the Gambian Press Union. A former executive at the publication was repeatedly pursued, for allegedly "uttering seditious words." A reporter with the opposition Foroyaa newspaper who investigated his arrest was himself arrested and detained for a night.
A violent July attack on journalist Justice Momodou Darboe of the independent The Point by a knife-wielding assailant underscored the continuing threat of violence.
Amid the political tumult leading up the presidential elections in Zimbabwe, press freedom violations multiplied in April and May. Several journalists were attacked and beaten, and a truck carrying 60,000 copies of a publication printed in South Africa was torched. Those who could fled.
Changes introduced to the notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) triggered little more than confusion. The authority in charge was replaced, but accreditation remained mandatory, and used to prohibit many from covering the elections, including several international media. Those who reported without it were aggressively persecuted, including a New York Times correspondent and British freelancer, detained at the Harare police station for 5 days before charges were dropped. On the day of presidential run-off elections, seven journalists were arrested in connection with questions regarding their accreditation. All of them – a British photographer, four Zimbabweans, and two South Africans – were released after one night.
Zimbabwe’s media faced plenty of other judicial hurdles. Editors and media lawyers were repeatedly charged with offences such as "publishing false statements prejudicial to the state and contempt of court" and "undermining the authority or insulting the president" for running opposition politician columns and making remarks about President Robert Mugabe.
A new "luxury goods" tax on all foreign newspapers sold in Zimbabwe left no doubt about the government’s attitude towards information. Mugabe’s regime went a step further in late December, threatening to ban accredited foreign bureaus and local reporters working for international news organizations. The government continued its ban on BBC reporters.
In Ethiopia, efforts to revive independent media after the government’s sweeping 2005 crackdown in which dozens of journalists and opposition politicians were jailed or exiled were repeatedly hampered. The license applications of two publishers and a columnist were inexplicably rejected even though the Ministry of Information conceded that all legal requirements had been fulfilled. Later news emerged that no new licenses would be issued until the much-maligned new press law was published.
Revisions to the Ethiopia’s media law, passed in July, included some welcome provisions but did not rid the existing press law of its most pernicious clauses. The new law bans censorship of private media and the detention of journalists suspected of law infringement. However, prosecutors can still impound publishing materials prior to publication in certain circumstances. Fines for defamation were increased. Also, defamation and libel remained criminal offences under the penal code, punishable by prison.
The Charities and Societies Proclamation, a draft law criminalizing certain human rights activities, also caused alarm. Violations could trigger penalties of up to five years of imprisonment. The draft law also provides for the creation of an agency with wide discretion to regulate civil society organisations in the country.
The government was particularly aggressive in response to coverage of Tewodros Kassahun, a singer and outspoken government critic imprisoned on hit-and-run charges. Enku magazine’s editor and three others were arrested after publishing a cover story on Kassahun, and faced charges based on incitement. All 10,000 copies of the magazine were also seized. Two other editors were prosecuted for writing about the singer, one for naming the wrong judge as being in charge of his trial.
Amare Aregawi, editor of one of Ethiopia’s best read newspapers, was arrested in Addis Ababa in August and taken to a prison 700 kilometres away, in connection with stories addressing criticisms of the management of a brewery linked to the government. The charges were quickly dismissed. A few months later, Aregawi was attacked by two assailants, who struck him on the back of the head. Aregawi lost consciousness and required medical treatment. The two men were soon apprehended. Local sources believe the attack was connected to his work at the Reporter.
In Nigeria, President Umaru Yar’Adua’s government reacted strongly to critical media coverage, particularly relating to his health, a repeated source of rumours. In September, the government suspended Channels TV and State Security Services (SSS) held four of its staff members after the station mistakenly aired a hoax report that health reasons may prompt the president to step down. In late 2008, several staff members of an independent daily were interrogated by the SSS and then charged with libel for publishing an article claiming ill health forced the president to cancel official engagements and seek medical treatment from international doctors.
Two U.S.-based bloggers were held for questioning by the SSS in a crackdown on foreign-based political websites that specialise in Nigeria following the online publication of photos of the president’s son. The oil-rich Niger Delta region also remained dangerous, with two documentary filmmaker teams detained and interrogated by state security before being released.
In October, radio journalist Eiphraim Audu, who was involved with the Nigerian Union of Journalists, was shot by six unknown gunmen near his home. In the meantime, no progress was made on the Freedom of Information bill, with the House of Representatives again deferring its consideration.
Conditions deteriorated in Lesotho and Cameroon. In Lesotho, Harvest FM radio host Thabo Thakalekoala was charged with offences including high treason for broadcasting a letter arguing for the arrest of certain government members for corruption. IPI successfully applied to the WPFC Fund Against Censorship to cover his legal fees. He was ultimately convicted of sedition, defamation and subversion, but avoided prison by paying a fine.
The radio station also became the first target of a new law making it easier for the government to revoke broadcasting licenses. Harvest FM was off the air for three months, apparently suspended because officials felt its broadcasts would "damage their dignity." Print media did not fare much better, with a now-defunct weekly, its editor and its printing company fined US$8,000 for defaming Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
The new telecommunications law came at a time that also brought a dramatic increase in broadcasting license fees, from US$400 to US$3,000 per year. The fees imperil private broadcasters long struggling to survive without governmental advertising.
In Cameroon, singing became a risky form of expression. After almost six months in detention, musician Lapiro de Mbanga was found guilty of taking part in riots against the high cost of living. He was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay some US$640,000 as damage compensation. The charges were widely viewed as retaliation for a critical song he wrote about planned constitutional amendments. Earlier in the year, songwriter Joe La Conscience, another critic of the amendments, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for organising an allegedly illegal demonstration. He was later pardoned.
Three private broadcasters were summarily closed for five months for failing to pay the staggering US$227,000 licensing fee. With only four broadcasters operating with licenses, many viewed this as selective enforcement in response to critical coverage.
The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) emphasized that the comparatively low numbers of journalists killed in Somalia did not reflect an improved media environment. Unjustified arrests and detention of journalists in the lawless country actually increased, NUSOJ reported, while fear of reprisal fostered self-censorship. In a devastating incident, Nasteh Dahir Farah, the 26-year-old vice president of NUSOJ, was killed by shots in the head and chest by two men after earlier receiving death threats.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, journalists were caught in the middle of increasing violence between rebels and government forces, particularly in the country’s eastern part.
Journalists often faced repercussions for their interviews. Staff of the UN-backed Radio Okapi were threatened for being "unpatriotic" for interviewing the spokesperson of the Congrčs national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), and for delivering news deemed "humiliating" for the army. Other radio and TV journalists were also threatened and held for up to two days.
The November killing of Didace Namujimbo, a reporter for Radio Okapi, exposed the risks of working in the country. Namujimbo, who was shot dead with a single bullet to the head, was found without mobile phone but still in possession of money and other personal items.
Radio Okapi’s news editor Serge Maheshe was killed in 2007. In May 2008, a military appeals court sentenced two convicted gunmen and their accomplice to death for the murder, in a judicial process denounced by human rights groups as providing inadequate safeguards for a fair trial. The only positive news was the acquittal of Maheshe’s two friends and eyewitnesses of the crime, who were initially accused based on statements of the two convicted gunmen.
Others narrowly escaped violence. A journalist of the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, his interpreter and their driver were abducted in November by Mai Mai forces, but released within three days.
Judicial persecution also continued. Ten and nine-month sentences, respectively, were imposed on an editor and his assistant after they were secretly held for three months at a National Intelligence Agency detention centre. They were found guilty of "insulting the head of state" in connection with articles questioning the health of President Joseph Kabila.
Sierra Leone’s media environment remained heavily politicized, with journalists caught in the middle of clashes between supporters of the ruling All People’s Congress and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s parties. A party leader meeting to discuss the clashes caused more violence, with security personnel assaulting journalists and confiscating equipment. Disappointingly, no progress was made on promised changes to the Public Order Act, which imposes lengthy prison terms for defamation. The law continued to be used as a cudgel against government critics.
South Africa’s journalists reportedly faced increasingly uncooperative government officials and local authorities. A draft Protection of Information Bill, which outlined broad protection for information where secrecy was deemed to be in the "national interest," also caused concern. It was withdrawn in October, but is expected to be reintroduced in 2009.
An IPI General Assembly resolution highlighted another problem: the growing number of arrests of journalists covering police action at crime scenes or other incidents. Journalists were repeatedly arrested and detained overnight, but charges against them quickly dismissed as baseless by courts.
The 2009 presidential election prompted allegations by the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that its reporters and editors were receiving threats from political party representatives, warning them to report favourably on certain parties. The SABC indicated that it had not witnessed as much intimidation since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Increased statutory regulation of the media was at issue in several countries. In Botswana the Media Practitioners’ Bill, which seeks to introduce a statutory press council, require registration and permit large penalties for violations, caused concern. In Zambia, members of parliament introduced the possibility of statutory instruments after voicing disappointment over politicized election coverage. In Kenya, a bill proposing a government-appointed communications commission reached the final stages of the legislative process in December. The development sparked demonstrations that led to arrests of several journalists and other protesters.
In Tanzania, editors and reporters took to the streets to protest a three-month ban on a weekly that the government accused of fomenting sedition by reporting that some officials sought to oust President Jakaya Kikwete. The information minister said the ban would "send strong signals" to media considering "unethical" reports, but in turn got strong signals from journalists that they would not tolerate such interference.