Magazine article Nieman Reports

When African Governments Stifle Press Freedom: In Many Countries in Southern Africa, Journalists Face Harsh Consequences When They Try to Hold Governments Accountable

Magazine article Nieman Reports

When African Governments Stifle Press Freedom: In Many Countries in Southern Africa, Journalists Face Harsh Consequences When They Try to Hold Governments Accountable

Article excerpt

For his reporting exposing corrupt business practices, journalist Carlos Alberto Cardoso was gunned down by assassins hired by organized business interests in Maputo, Mozambique on the evening of November 22, 2000. Their goal: to silence him.

This was an unusual attack on a journalist in the sense that most of the actions taken against journalists in countries that comprise the Southern African Development Community (SADC)--Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe--involve actions taken by the government. In the Cardoso case, the businessmen and their hired guns were convicted of this crime and are now serving lengthy prison terms.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), based in Windhoek, Namibia, was formed in 1992 with an SADC regional mandate of promoting the provisions of the Windhoek Declaration of May 1991 that declared "independent, pluralistic and free press" essential for democracy and economic development. Since its founding, MISA has monitored, investigated and reported on media freedom violations in 11 of the 14 SADC countries. (MISA does not operate in DRC, Mauritius and Seychelles.)

Death, assault, detentions and imprisonment have characterized the difficult situation faced by journalists in these countries during the past 10 years as relationships among media and governments have deteriorated. As journalists work to hold government officials accountable to the people and to democratic norms, these governments have intensified their clampdown on the media through actions meant to stifle and silence their voices. The space for political debate and dissent in the region is being squeezed tightly as governments enact legislation aimed at suppressing the independence of the media and providing avenues by which to punish those who might publish stories of government wrongdoing.

Media Repression

The intensification of media violations takes its greatest toll on journalists who work in countries whose governments exhibit dictatorial and authoritative tendencies. Among the SADC countries, Angola, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi are the more repressive environments in which journalists attempt to work.

Angola: Reporting on activities of the president and government officials whether in caricature, print or broadcast is one of the most dangerous assignments for journalists in Angola. In March 2000, Rafael Marques, a freelance journalist and Aguiar dos Santos, the director of the independent weekly newspaper, Agora, were convicted of defaming, injuring and slandering President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in an article Marques wrote and published in Agora, "The Lipstick of Dictatorship." His crime: describing the president as a dictator "responsible for the destruction of the country and the promotion of corruption." Marques was convicted on an additional charge of defaming, injuring and slandering Angolan Attorney General Domingos Culolo. Covering the leader of the opposition party has also posed serious threats to Angolan journalists. Doing this has resulted in many journalists being banned, imprisoned, censored and excluded from official press conferences. In August 1999, journalists working for the church radio station, Radio Ecclesia, were arrested, their materials confiscated, and the radio station was shut down for some hours for broadcasting an interview the BBC had done with UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

Zimbabwe: Working here as a journalist has become dangerous. As the government becomes more paranoid about losing power, it has passed repressive legislation that criminalizes the work of journalists, who are required to apply for annual licenses from a government appointed and controlled media commission, which requires that they work for "registered" media houses. Freelance journalists must provide proof of agreements with those to whom they will be selling stories and supply samples of previous journalistic work to be licensed. …

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