Amidst the celebrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, following the resignation of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak, a terrible tragedy occurred. Top CBS News foreign correspondent Lara Logan, was brutally sexually assaulted for 20-30 minutes, having been separated from her press crew by a “frenzied mob” who had mixed with the jubilant crowds.
The public are the ultimate beneficiaries of information provided by the press and yet in situations such as this, they become their downfall.
This incident sheds light on just one of the tribulations that reporters on the African continent face.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has recently released its annual book Attacks on the Press 2010. The report tries to account for all the incidents of injustice that have faced journalists over the year; the 44 journalists who were killed and 145 jailed on the African continent. Yet these figures cannot be accurate for the same reason they exist, the saving grace of silence.
Whether faced with the prospect of years in a secret detention centre somewhere in Eritrea, or enduring harassment and redundant trials in Kenya, staying silent seems to be the way to go. And yet the music plays on, so the government must too.
There are varying styles that governments use to control the media, these reflect greatly the governing realities within the various nations.
Somalia is Africa’s most dangerous country for the press, as a result, the media rely heavily on security from the government. But protection comes at a cost. The Transitional Federal Government has the ability to censor information and increases risks for journalists since insurgent groups will often consider them to be government supporters. Likewise, media in insurgent-controlled areas must jump on the bandwagon or face closure, or worse.
In other many African countries, control of the press becomes paramount during times of election. Waving the excuses of ‘public ethics’ or ‘national security’, regimes will exercise any means necessary to keep a favourable light on them.
In Rwanda, control of the press was very open. In a speech before his re-election, President Paul Kagame declared that "those who give our country a bad image can take a rope and hang themselves". Mainstream press pretty much fled and small press was heavily censored.
In Uganda, things were more subtle. Elections are currently underway and though this country had a momentous win for press freedom when the Constitutional Court struck down a criminal sedition statute that had been used to silence critical journalists, there have been a large number of incidents reported. These vary from arrests (with charges of sedition or fraud) to intimidation and even death.
In the build-up to Kenya’s 2012 elections it seems the government is also gearing up to exercise some control. Though part of the country’s new constitution declares that the state will not interfere with the media, the Ministry of Information has produced a bill which seeks to reintroduce media control.
It is hardly surprising that issues of press freedom are neglected in Africa. The African Union headquarters, for one, are based in Ethiopia. Imprisoning journalists and jamming foreign broadcasters is just one of the boxes to tick during the election period. And despite having a ‘freedom of press’ law, the severe harassment that journalists endure means they rarely dare to address the country’s negative issues.
Just in case that doesn’t discredit the organisation’s reputation as a supporter of ‘freedom of speech’, this year Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang' Nguema was named as the new chairman of the African Union. Obiang is one of Africa’s most repressive dictators and keeps a well-stifled press at home.
Social media may create an opportunity for press freedom, however, having seen the way in which governments are able to infiltrate the net during the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, it cannot be too heavily relied upon. Particularly when the content is not easily verifiable.
Governments have sought to hush up investigative reporting, demanded the exposure of sources and are pros with legal harassment. Despite this, the media on the continent has proved resilient.
Perhaps the CPJ could consider sending out a report on ‘Journalistic Bravery’, for once Africa might rank at the top.