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Five decades after independence, African journalists still seeking freedom

Five decades after independence, African journalists still seeking freedom

Published on Wednesday 20 October 2010.
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Horn still worst off, censorship hits Sudan and Rwanda, prison death mars Cameroon

With many African countries marking the 50th anniversary of their independence, 2010 should have been a year of celebration but the continent’s journalists were not invited to the party. The Horn of Africa continues to be the region with the least press freedom but there were disturbing reverses in the Great Lakes region and East Africa.

Eritrea (178th) is at the very bottom of the world ranking for the fourth year running. At least 30 journalists and four media contributors are held incommunicado in the most appalling conditions, without right to a trial and without any information emerging about their situation. Journalists employed by the state media – the only kind of media tolerated – have to choose between obeying the information ministry’s orders or trying to flee the country. The foreign media are not welcome.

In Somalia (161st), the media are not being spared by the civil war between the transitional government and Islamist militias, and journalists often fall victim to the violence. The two leading Islamist militias, Al-Shabaab and Hizb-Al-Islam, are gradually seizing control of independent radio stations and using them to broadcast their religious and political propaganda.

The temporary lifting of prior censorship on the print media in Sudan (172nd) was just a smokescreen. It has fallen 24 places and now has Africa’s second worst ranking, partly as a result of the closure of the opposition daily Rai-al-Shaab and the jailing of five members of its staff, but above all because of the return of state surveillance of the print media, which makes it impossible to cover key stories such as the future referendum on South Sudan’s independence.

Rwanda (169th), where President Paul Kagame was returned to power in a highly questionable election, has fallen 12 places and now has Africa’s third worst ranking. The six-month suspension of leading independent publications, the climate of terror surrounding the presidential election and Umuvugizi deputy editor Jean-Léonard Rugambage’s murder in Kigali were the reasons for this fall. Journalists are fleeing the country because of the repression, in an exodus almost on the scale of Somalia’s.

Surveillance of the press and a decline in the climate for journalists during the May elections account for Ethiopia’s continued bad ranking (139th). Violence against journalists, arbitrary police arrests and intelligence agency abuses explain why Nigeria (145th) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (148th) are still in the bottom third.

Uganda (96th) fell a relatively modest 10 places but the murders of two journalists in separate incidents in September and the recent increase in physical attacks and arrests of journalists are fuelling serious concerns about the climate for the media in the run-up to next year’s elections. Cameroon (129th) fell 20 places as a result of newspaper editor Bibi Ngota’s death in prison and the continuing detention of two other editors. Côte d’Ivoire (118th) also fell a few places due to the harassment of newspapers such as L’Expression and Le Nouveau Courrier d’Abidjan and the temporary ban on local retransmission of French TV station France 24 in February.

Gambia (125th) and Niger (104th) were neck and neck last year at a 137th and 139th thanks to the predatory behaviour of their respective presidents, Yahya Jammeh and Mamadou Tandja. But press freedom in Niger has improved markedly since Tandja’s overthrow in February, accounting for its 35-place jump, although the situation is still very uncertain. Uncertainty is also the dominant feature of another country in transition, Guinea (113th). It fell 13 places because of a massacre on 28 September 2009 but a new government that could show more respect for press freedom is still seen as a possibility.

After two difficult years, Kenya (70th) has recovered a respectable position. Chad (112th) is also leaving behind the fraught period in 2008 when a state of emergency was imposed, but the level of freedom allowed the press is still insufficient. Angola (104th) has an acceptable ranking although the situation has been soured by a Radio Despertar journalist’s still unsolved murder in September 2010.

After sharp falls in 2009, Gabon (107th) and Madagascar (116th) have recovered some of the lost ground thanks to a decline in tension. But Madagascar’s transitional authorities need to show more respect for the press by ceasing to jail journalists (such as those of Radio Fahazavana) and ceasing to close down news media. Zimbabwe (123rd) has again made some slow progress, as it did last year. The return of independent dailies is a step forward for public access to information but the situation is still very fragile.

Two more African countries have entered the ranks of the world’s top 50 nations in terms of respect for press freedom. They are Tanzania (41st), although certain stories such as albinism continue to be off-limits for the press, and Burkina Faso (49th), even if justice still has not been rendered in the case of Norbert Zongo, a journalist who was murdered 12 years ago.

The relative positions of the African countries in the top 50 have also changed. They are now led by Namibia (21st), which has recovered its former pre-eminent position, while Cape Verde (26th) has caught up with Ghana (26th) and Mali (26th). South Africa (38th) has fallen five places, in part because of attacks on journalists during the Football World Cup but above all because of the behaviour of senior members of the ruling African National Congress towards the press. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, for example, expelled BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher from a news conference on 8 April, calling him a “bastard” and “bloody agent.” And the government plans to create a media tribunal and to pass a bill restricting the disclosure of information. Both projects would endanger press freedom.

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