Africa, Headlines

MEDIA: Africa Has More “Press Predators" than Any Other Continent

James Hall

JOHANNESBURG, May 6 2003 (IPS) - African journalists marked this week’s Press Freedom Day with sombre observations about the dangers of information gathering on the continent, and in some cases memorials to colleagues killed while doing their jobs.

Never before have there been so many journalists in prison around the world. All the indicators, including the numbers of journalists threatened and news media censored, show that things are getting worse," said Reporters Without Frontiers, the French press protection non-governmental organisation (NGO).

At the weekend, the group paraded photographs of 12 African government leaders who stifle the press in their countries, using tactics ranging from arrest, torture and murder to the bombing of newspaper offices.

The African leaders described as ôpredators" are: François Compaoré, economic adviser and brother of the president of Burkina Faso, Joseph Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, President of Equatorial Guinea, Issaias Afeworki, President of Eritrea, Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Charles Taylor, President of Liberia, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s Head of State, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, Mswati III, King of Swaziland, Gnassingbé Eyadema, President of Togo, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia, and Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe.

Africa has more leaders on the list of 42 ôpress predators" than any other continent, suggesting that many governments continue to feel threatened by investigative reporting and criticism from media commentators.

ôThere is a customary authoritarian streak in African leaders, many of whom still think of themselves in terms of tribal chiefs or kings, and no one is permitted to question, much less criticise a chief, because if they do they are considered disloyal and dangerous," said Nkhosinati Dlamini, a reporter in Swaziland.

Swaziland’s Minister of Information, who was appointed by King Mswati, last month told Parliament that the state-owned radio and television stations that comprise government’s monopoly on the electronic media would not be permitted to report controversial stories that embarrass government.

No journalists have been arrested in three years in Swaziland, but other African governments are conducting a reign of terror on reporters who operate in their borders, while banishing foreign journalists, as Zimbabwe did.

Eritrea has the second largest number of journalists in the world currently detained in jail, 18 in all.

According to Media Institute of Southern Africa, in the past two years the number of journalists taken in for questioning has increased 40 percent, and the number of journalists assaulted or threatened has doubled.

ôBehind these attacks on press freedom are leaders. Those who carry out these predators’ orders are often just policemen, soldiers, delinquents, or political extremists. But the men who hire them are presidents, ministers, chiefs of staff, religious leaders, or commanders of armed guerrillas. It is they who are directly responsible for these acts of violence that undermine people’s right to be informed," said Reporters without Frontiers.

The organisation sees the eventual application of international justice as one solution: ôEach of these ‘predators’ uses weapons and flouts laws in order to murder, jail, abduct, censor or torture anyone who might get in their way, especially journalists. The worst part is that they enjoy total impunity because they are so well protected by their status or by local judges acting under their orders. The establishment of the International Criminal Court will hopefully bring some of these ‘predators’ to justice."

The British organisation Article 19, which takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees press freedom, noted in a recent report on Burkina Faso conditions prevalent in other African nations ruled by ôpress predators": ôA ‘culture of secrecy’ remains prevalent within the government, therefore members of the public, including the media, are routinely denied access to official information that they are entitled to receive in a democracy."

Article 19 noted that in any country interference with the free flow of information slows economic and social development. This is because citizens are unable to participate effectively in the process of government, are unable to make informed choices about who should govern them, and cannot properly scrutinise officials to ensure corruption is avoided.

It was 12 years ago, at the time of increased democratisation in Africa, when delegates to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Seminar in Namibia passed the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 promoting independent and pluralistic media. The declaration became the template for future endorsements of press freedom in Africa, such as the African Charter on Broadcasting from 2001, and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom on Expression in Africa passed by the new African Union last year.

In addition, governments of the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agreed in a protocol to a free and pluralistic media in their countries, and last year the African Commission on Human Rights released its Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa.

Some of the signatories to these charters were clearly hypocritical, allowing the arrest of journalists and the censorship of the press in their nations. But the concept of a free press is now enshrined in legal and moral beliefs on good governance in Africa. There are even some successes to report. The name of the President of Angola, Eduardo dos Santos was dropped from this year’s list of ôpress predators" because working conditions for members of the press have visibly improved, said Reporters Without Frontiers.

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