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When Telling the Truth Is a Crime : Most journalists in Africa struggle under government threats, or worse

February 04, 1996

Few African journalists enjoy protections similar to those of the 1st Amendment. Dictators routinely silence the messenger, and a few otherwise democratic heads of state resort to intimidation in the face of criticism. Where promised, press freedom is often a fiction.

Censorship tends to worsen in the run-up to an election, as now in Kenya, or when democracy is denied outright, as is now the plight of Nigeria. These two countries--one in East Africa and one in West Africa--are symbolic of the range of press restraints on the continent, though neither represents the worst of Africa's repression.

In Algeria, Muslim extremists vow that "those who fight us with the pen shall be fought with the sword." The International Press Institute reports that more than 50 journalists have been killed in Algeria since 1993, victims of the battle between the religious parties and the government. The Algerian government, meanwhile, regularly shuts down newspapers. The murdering of journalists, literally killing the messenger, has also been reported in Angola and Burundi.

Press restraints across Africa range from simple harassment to imprisonment. Some governments have stopped the presses by destroying the machinery. In Kenya, President Daniel Arap Moi subtly attempts to muzzle reporters through his threats to establish a press council dominated by government representatives. The council would license journalists and have the power to prohibit reporters from working. The president also wants to set up a commission that could seize newspaper and broadcast equipment, shutting down the independent press before next year's elections. But despite the harassment, the long-established and independent Kenyan press remains on the job.

Government interference is more direct in Nigeria. In late December, authorities arrested Nosa Igiebor, the prominent editor of Tell magazine, because of his objective articles. The Lagos offices of the (Nigerian) Guardian were torched earlier in December. And in another incident that same month, Nigerian police arrested four news photographers at an opposition rally.

The threats continue against the press, although Gen. Sani Abacha, the Nigerian dictator, has now lifted the ban against the Guardian, Punch and the National Concord, a newspaper that had been published by the now-imprisoned Moshood Abiola, who won the Nigerian elections that Abacha abrogated.

Though an independent press has taken root in several multi-party democracies, including South Africa and Burkino Faso, most African journalists struggle under the hand of government, and objective reporting is still considered a crime.

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