The Centre for theProtection of Journalists (CPJ) is an organization that collects data on attacks on press freedom in Africa. They have recently published their important Attacks on the Pressreport, which reveals that 10 journalists have been killed since 1992 in Angola, 8 were murdered by uniformed forces in the DRC between 2005 and 2011, and that Eritrea is the sixth most censored nation in the world (above Cuba but below Libya under Gaddafi). We thought it was high time that we brought their work to your attention, so we decided to interview CPJ ‘s Africa Program Coordinator, Mohamed Keita. Nic Cheeseman posed the questions…
What is the CPJ and what does it do?
CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, was founded in 1981 by journalists to support a fellow Paraguayan journalist under attack. It has since evolved into an organization promoting press freedom worldwide; an organization taking action to protect journalists who are censored, jailed, kidnapped or killed for their reporting. As an independent, nonprofit organization, it has a staff of over 20 in New York and around the world-including Mexico, Kenya, Belgium and Thailand.
CPJ figures show that there has been a fall in the number of journalists forced into exile between 2008 and 2011 in Africa. Do you think that this reflects greater media freedom on the continent?
The figures may have dropped because most of the leading independent journalists, in countries like Gambia, Ethiopia or Equatorial Guinea, are already outside the country and the ones left are working in fear.
But each year, there are new challenges to maintain press freedom. There is a developing trend where African leaders are using economic development aims to justify restrictions on press freedom. Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, for example, has commented that negative press coverage was to blame for the Africa’s slow progress, which I reported in our 2012 Attacks on the Press Report. Also, there are increasing cases of press freedom limitations. South Africa’s secrecy bill legislation, which aims to jail journalists for reporting on classified information, has to be defeated because it threatens to undermine 18 years of progress since the end of Apartheid. Regimes in Cameroon and Angola are taking aims at freedom of expression online, with legislative measures criminalizing the dissemination photos and footage about protests. Meanwhile, Ethiopia and Burundi’s use of terrorism laws to prosecute and jail critical journalists is a disturbing new trend. This is all worrying. There may be signs of greater press freedom but there is also room for improvement.
What are the main ways in which African governments attempt to muzzle the press, and which are the most successful?
African governments have maintained censorship regimes that allow them to control domestic media. In fact, it means old censorship tactics are also applied. Eritrea holds 28 jailed journalists (the most in Africa) and an Information Minister controlling the press. He directs journalists on what to report and how to report. Journalists who fail to do so are held in secret prisons without charge, access to a lawyer or a trial.
The increased use of social media by citizens has not deterred governments either. Ethiopia operates sub-Saharan Africa’s most extensive and sophisticated Internet censorship infrastructure and was ranked among CPJ’s top 10 Online Oppressors. A blogger Eskinder Nega, one of the outspoken critics of current president Meles Zenawi, is on trial on terrorism charges and could be sentenced to life in prison for comparing the Arab Spring to the pro-democracy protests in the country in 2005. Ethiopia blocks critical web sites discussing political dissent and human rights, including our own.
Where in Africa is media freedom most under threat?
And where is the media most protected?
They are mostly in countries with strong democratic institutions, such as Ghana and Botswana.
Even some of Africa’s most democratic countries such as Botswana and South Africa have recently debated legislation that would seriously undermine media freedom. Why do you think there is still so little commitment to maintaining a free press across the continent?
Lingering poverty has created cynics and we notice that upholding press freedom has taken a backseat to poverty reduction in the international development agenda. The African Union lacks resources and political will to support the work the work of its special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. China’s intensifying media operations in Africa, favoring partnership with state-controlled media and positive reporting, is also emboldening heads of government to hark back to developmental journalism. There needs to be a collective will and aim to address press freedom issues. The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) give us hope. The court issued landmark rulings against the Gambia on cases of disappearance and torture of journalists, but the problem is enforcement.
One of the biggest changes in Africa over the last twenty years has been the deregulation and opening up of FM radio which used to be solely in the hands of the government. Would it be fair to say that most Africans now have access to a greater range of news sources than ever before?
Yes, they do have greater access. Other than the opening of FM radios, Africans have access to social media. Social media tools have become platforms for dissent that is repressed offline, with the wide range of news they provide. In addition, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube users who are posting photos and videos from the streets via their cell phones are breaking some of the biggest news in Africa these days, and traditional media is trying to keep up with them. With the coup in Mali last month, journalists used social media to gather information on what was happening on the ground.
How are African governments responding to new forms of media and communications such as Twitter and Facebook?
Governments in Angola, and Cameroon are cracking down on this use of the Internet by passing laws against “cyber crime.” Zimbabwe arrested and prosecuted a man last year for posting a political comment on Facebook and many governments regularly demand email passwords of journalists in custody. Rwanda’s government is directly engaging critics online by building its online presence-President Kagame included. Journalists and citizen journalists alike have to consider their online security. We organized a conference in Johannesburg last year that brought together some of the leading online journalists in Africa to discuss practical solutions to the challenges they face. We also have an Internet expert who is providing legal and technical assistance to new media journalists around the world.
What can our readers do to help protect journalists and promote press freedom in Africa?
It will be to help build a coalition to end censorship that will bring governments, civil society and media together in supporting freedom of information.
Click here to download the Attacks on the Press 2011 report.
Click here for the Africa section of the CPJ’s website.