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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 2nd May 2010

Africa's journalists are under attack – why the rest of us should help

Patrick Smith

May Day

On 1 May, the celebrants of international workers day converged on the Place de la République in the centre of Paris waving their banners, handing out pamphlets and proselytising on the pavements. Although a few African and Asian workers groups pressed their cause among the big red banners, international solidarity took second place to local worries about jobs and pensions in the bitter aftermath of the financial crisis.

Among the biggest worriers (and possibly, the worst trades unionists) in Europe at the moment are journalists confronted with a tide of newspaper closures, budget cuts and job losses. Among the latest victims is the BBC World Service radio which is facing cuts of at least 25% in its budget, whichever party wins the British elections on 6 May.

All a cause for concern as the news industry desperately tries to find a way to make money in the internet era of free information. But these new woes shouldn't mean that Western journalists and our audiences forget the human cost of news gathering around the world. There is a worsening crackdown on journalists in many regions of the world, especially Africa, as governments and businesses struggle to deal with harsher economic conditions.

One of the latest victims in Africa is Ngota Ngota Germain, editor of the weekly Cameroon Express, who died in detention on 23 April in Yaoundé's Kodengui gaol. Along with two other journalists, Serge Sabouang and Robert Mintya, Ngota had been investigating allegations of corruption against Secretary General in the Presidency Laurent Esso and the state oil company.

And on the following day, three journalists were killed in Nigeria in so far unexplained circumstances: Edo Sule Ugbagwu of the Nation was shot in his house; and Nathan Dabak and Sunday Bwede were shot while reporting on the clashes in Plateau State. Last September, an editor with the Lagos daily The Guardian, Bayo Ohu was shot in his house and the assailants stole his laptop and cellphone raising suspicions that someone was trying to silence him.

Sadly, this list of journalistic casualties in Africa is lengthening and regional governments appear indifferent as best and complicit at worst. President Dénis Sassou Nguesso's regime in Congo-Brazzaville is blocking the investigation into the burning to death of Franco-Congolese journalists Bruno Jacquet last year just before the flawed presidential elections. Jacquet had been investigating links between Sassou-Nguesso and international oil companies.

No progress has been made in finding the killers of investigative journalist Didace Namujimbo who was working for Radio Okapi in the east of Congo-Kinshasa. And President Yahya Jammeh in Gambia refuses to respond to questions about the whereabouts of Daily Observer journalist Ebrima Manneh, who was arrested in the newspaper's officer by state security officials in July 2006 and hasn't been seen since.

In Egypt, Abdel Karim Suleiman who criticised some conservative religious figures in his blog known as 'Karim Amer', was sentenced to four years gaol in 2006. Since then he has been beaten several times by a prison guard and another inmate at the Borg Al-Arab prison in Alexandria. All these cases have been taken up by excellent lobby groups such as Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders but our journalistic responsibility doesn't stop there.

That was made clear by the African delegates to the Global Investigative Journalism conference in Geneva on 22-25 April. There journalists such as Mary Akuffo of Ghana's New Crusading Guide, together with freelance reporters Annie Mpalume from Zimbabwe and John Grobler from Namibia described the perils of reporting on illegal mining operations and corruption in the big mining houses. Mpalume was arrested by soldiers in Zimbabwe's disputed diamond fields at Chiadzwa and Grobler was attacked with a broken glass after his reports annoyed some local business interests.

Also speaking at the conference were the award-winning reporters, Ghana's Anas Aremeyaw Anas and Uganda's Frank Nyakairu, who have produced insider stories on the international people trafficking business. And Kenyan journalists, Fatuma Noor and Kassim Mohammed explained their battles to investigate the business dealings among Somalia's pirates.

What emerged from all these accounts was the bravery of the individual reporters and their important contribution to the global coverage of corporate corruption and human rights issues in ways that many western readers and listeners, and even many journalists take for granted.

Organisations such as the Forum for Investigative Reporters (FAIR) do great work in promoting the braver and more intrepid journalists in Africa but publications and broadcasters outside Africa should find ways to do more.

We should ensure that the stringers and fixers that we work with in Africa are properly remunerated: our national journalist unions are very good at establishing minimum pay scales at home, it's time we did the same thing for payments to journalists and researchers that we work with around the world.

We should also get our journalists unions to dedicate a fixed percentage of their incomes to support those journalists in Africa who are hit by legal medical and expenses as a result of contributing to international coverage. And at the same time our news organisations should be more ready to accord full credit to the local journalists who take many of the risks and often have the story ideas in the first place. And we should all, through our newspapers and broadcasters as well as our trades unions, press for international attention to be firmly focused those journalists targeted by regimes and business interests who feel threatened by the power of independent reporting.