Outliving Abacha: Six Journalists' Prison
Dem. Rep. of Congo
Civil war and political upheaval had a devastating impact on journalists throughout the region this year. Journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Angola, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone were not only the targets of governments desperately clinging to power, but they were simultaneously targeted by rebel armies and militia factions attempting to overthrow those governments. And their colleagues working in countries the West views as the "new African democracies" -- including Uganda, Ghana, and Namibia -- have learned from bitter experience that they must still contend with governments that use military and presidential decrees, colonial-era sedition and criminal libel laws, and the threat of detention without charge to control the press.
One of Africa's most vile dictators died this year, leaving the valiant
journalists of his country in less immediate peril but facing an uncertain
future. Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler, had conducted a
reign of terror against the country's press, threatening and imprisoning
scores of journalists since he seized power in 1993. His successor,
Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, came into power pledging democratic reforms,
including a transition to elective government. Within a few months,
he released 16 of the 17 journalists whose incarceration had boosted
Nigeria to first place as the worst jailer of journalists in Africa
in 1997. Those who came out brought harrowing stories of their treatment
at the hands of Abacha's minions, and deep skepticism about Abubakar's
promises for democratization in Nigeria. (See:
Outliving Abacha: Six Journalists' Prison Stories )
In August, CPJ held a confere
nce in Ghana that provided leading Nigerian journalists their first
opportunity to meet without the threat of security raids or detention.
They joined colleagues from Ghana, Zambia, and Argentina -- another
country with a dark past under military dictatorship -- to discuss their
experiences under Abacha and beyond. Most participants stressed that
without long-term reforms such as the abrogation of Abacha-era decrees
used to crack down on the press and the expunging of journalists' criminal
records, any celebration of a new era of press freedom in Nigeria was
For many journalists, the wave of democratization that swept across the region earlier this decade is a distant memory. During that period, the press's exposure of corrupt autocratic and dictatorial regimes, combined with the popular demand for more representative governments, enlivened the democracy movement in the region. While some of the military dictators and one-party rulers of previous decades have reinvented themselves as democrats, far too many have done so through manipulated elections, and persist in their intolerance of critical reporting. And the same journalists who midwifed the transition to democracy in those countries found themselves in detention cells or courtrooms facing reprisals for continuing to call for the transparency in government that was promised in previous election campaigns.
Radio remains the most effective means to communicate with the majority of the population throughout the region, and it is not a coincidence that Africa's broadcasters are now being targeted by governments who wish to keep their constituencies in the dark about their corruption and gross abuses of power. Radio broadcasters like Mustapha Thiombiano of Burkina Faso, and CPJ 1998 International Press Freedom Award recipient Grémah Boucar of Niger, who were licensed during the wave of democracy earlier in the decade, are now struggling to hold on to those licenses.Licenses are even more difficult to obtain for independent journalists who wish to operate television stations. Governments that used to engage broadcasters in protracted legal battles on trumped-up charges have now lost patience and are resorting to cruder strong-arm tactics to force independent journalists off the air. Throughout the year, they sent soldiers to destroy broadcast studios, vandalize or confiscate transmitters, and detain staff.
Observers will be watching the Nation Group in Kenya to see just how far the region's rulers can be expected to tolerate press freedom. This year, the Nation Group finally received broadcast licenses and frequencies for both radio and television, seven years after it submitted its applications.
The impact of war on the region's journalists cannot be overstated. Seven neighboring countries have sent troops into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to support either Laurent Kabila or the rebel insurgents. Journalists in all of these countries -- Namibia, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the DRC -- have risked harassment, imprisonment, and physical harm in their attempts to cover the conflict and expose government officials' private war-related business enterprises. Foreign correspondents became targets of soldiers, state security agents, and police in a number of countries, and sometimes even by citizens who believed the jingoistic propaganda disseminated by their governments. In the DRC, for example, reporting became so dangerous by August that foreign correspondents left the country en masse. In countries where the war has drained scarce resources and taken many lives, independent publications have reported these stories, fueling public outcry.
At year's end, Ethiopia held more journalists in prison than any other African country -- an ignominous record that the country has held for all but one of the past five years. But for most of the year, the DRC rivaled Ethiopia; since Laurent Kabila ousted Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997, his regime has imprisoned more than 70 journalists, some repeatedly.
Unresconstructed military dictators still rule by decree in Niger and Nigeria; and former-military-dictators-turned-presidents in countries like The Gambia and Burkina Faso are no more tolerant of diverse views and critical opinion than their military brethren. What is encouraging, however, is that the citizens of these countries have begun to challenge the leaders' failure to live up to their promises of democratic institution-building, and have vigorously supported their independent media. In Niger, thousands marched in the streets to protest the military assault on Radio Anfani when soldiers vandalized the station and arrested the staff. When Norbert Zongo, editor in chief of the leading opposition newspaper in Burkina Faso, L'Independent, died in a suspicious car crash in December, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral. The government was forced to create a board of inquiry after calls for an impartial investigation into Zongo's death spilled over into widespread demonstations.
Journalists associations in the region such as the West African Journalists Association have become much stronger forces in the area of advocacy. CPJ has worked closely with these groups to create intraregional networks for collaboration and communication, and to advocate more effectively on behalf of journalists in danger.
This year, the number of African newspapers and magazines available on the Internet skyrocketed. Radio stations like Joy-FM of Ghana, and Sud-FM of Senegal are also broadcasting live on the Internet. Many journalists are now on-line, bringing a world of research and information to their fingertips, as well as providing a global audience for their work. Although cost continued to limit private Internet access to a privileged few in the region, public Internet kiosks -- roadside stands where anyone can access the Internet for a fee, or check their free e-mail on services such as Hotmail and Juno -- are springing up throughout the region.
Many observers offer a pessimistic prognosis for press freedom in Africa, predicting a continuation of the downward spiral that began at mid-decade. While it is undeniable that press freedom has lost ground in many countries of the region, it is also true -- and perhaps more important -- to note that the courage of the region's journalists in the face of often incomprehensible repression and brutality has prevented the complete reversal of the press freedom gains of the early 1990s. Now, they must exceed those efforts of previous years to keep the few functioning democratic institutions alive as numerous heads of state backslide into despotism to stay in power.