Bondage in the Horn of AfricaBy LEE MWITI | Friday, September 30 2011 at 09:32
Every September’s end since 2001, media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists has religiously put out a statement highlighting the case of jailed Eritrean/Swedish journalist Dawit Isaac, one of the region’s longest serving prisoners of conscience.
And every time the consistent response by Eritrea nation has remained the same: Studious silence.
On September 23, Dawit marked ten years of incarceration since his arrest in 2001 when the Eritrean government shut down the independent press and rounded up journalists and reformists deemed critical of the regime.
CPJ believes up to 16 journalists from those crackdowns are still held in secret prisons around the reclusive country.
Any scant information about their fate has been gleaned from sources such as escaping guards who paint a grim picture of the hellish conditions that exist in these prisons.
Many of the held journalists are since believed to have died in incarceration.
Dawit, who holds dual Eritrean and Swedish citizenship has remained the “poster prisoner” of that crackdown. It seems like even Stockholm, known for upholding human rights, has given up on him.
But there may be hope for him, albeit slim. Last week, a strongly-worded European Parliament resolution called for Eritrea to “... Immediately release independent journalists and all others who have been jailed simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
The European Union is the largest aid donor to Eritrea, suggesting that its statement could coax a reaction out of the authorities.
In addition, after years of shouldering a pariah-state tag, the country’s President, Isaias Aferwerki, has also been on an international charm offensive.
“President Aferwerki has been trying to dig the country out of international isolation and may just be willing to listen,” says CPJ’s East Africa Correspondent, Tom Rhodes.
Recently however, a minister in the Eritrean government while on a trip to Sweden said it was time to “move on” from the Dawit saga, casting doubt as to whether Asmara can succumb to the international pressure over the jailed journalists.
“It is a morbid picture but we at CPJ we are not going to give up on pushing for their rights,” says Mr Rhodes.
This unwanted anniversary of sorts has highlighted the dangerous reporting environment in the Horn of Africa, region already struggling with natural calamities.
Two weeks ago, Ethiopia arrested two independent journalists under a far-reaching controversial anti-terrorism law, bringing to six the number of journalists held under the recently enacted legislation.
The law effectively criminalises reporting opposition groups including the Oromo Liberation Front and Ginbot-7, with jail terms of up to 20 years provided for those who would run afoul of it.
Earlier this month Ethiopian journalist Argaw Ashine was forced to flee after a confidential US diplomatic cable leaked by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks mentioned him by name as having tipped off journalists of a now-defunct private paper of their impending arrest.
The Ethiopian government has recently been accused of clamping down on the few remaining independent media outlets using the law.
“There seems to be government fears of a similar Arab Spring, especially after reports of a planned protest earlier this year,” says Mr Rhodes.
In May this year as the ruling party marked 20 years in power there was an on-line campaign dubbed Beka! (Enough!) calling for a revolution in the country following a spate of uprisings in Arab countries, but which dissipated harmlessly.
In the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, 20-year-old radio journalist Horriyo Abdulkadir Sheik Ali was shot four times on September 14. She is still recovering from the attack.
So what seems to have suddenly changed in the region?
Observers say that while reporting in the Horn of Africa has always been dangerous, the twin issues of WikiLeaks and, interestingly, the “[Rupert] Murdoch Effect” have had a hand.
“These two events have pushed governments to heighten their sensitivity to the press. Journalists are now either targeted or have become more wary,” Mr Amadou Mahtar Ba, the chief executive officer of the African Media Initiative (AMI), a programme that looks out for the region’s media interests, told the Africa Review, The Africa and Digital Division of the Nation Media Group.
The hacking case facing the empire of media mogul Rupert Murdoch has been seized upon as evidence of the lack of journalistic ethics, he says.
“Politicians and governments have taken to labelling journalists as corrupt, untrained depicting them as the enemy.”
Mr Ba however does not think the Arab Spring played a role given the media in those countries were already mostly under government control.
“Local media did not play a big role; it was more of citizen power, with new communication tools. For example, in Mali and Mauritania there wasn’t the same agitation, despite the media reporting widely on events up North.
“This begs the question: Are traditional media forms still relevant?”
Mr Salim Amin, the chair of independent pan-African outlet A24 Media, thinks they are.
“Journalists are going to continue to play a more important role even in the face of social media. The importance of cross checking facts and providing context remains key,” says Mr Amin.
The son of renowned photojournalist Mohamed Amin, he also thinks the change protests in the Arab world may be playing a role in making governments in the Horn more paranoid.
“I think there is definitely a fall-out from what happened in North Africa. Social media is what is worrying these governments. More platforms have allowed independent media to flourish and are now more influential,” he said.
“My big worry is that independent media will be pushed out as they do not have the tools to operate in this new environment.”
Both Mr Ba and Mr Amin are agreed that there has been a slide in the ease of reporting in the region.
“What has changed is the fact that we are getting to hear these stories more due to improved communication and the activities of bodies such as watchdogs,” said Mr Amin.
The African Media Initiative will have the issue on its agenda when it meets this November through its annual Media Leaders Forum, set for Tunis this November.
“We are clearly concerned about the situation. We have seen many countries sliding back, and this is a big shame. In Tunis in our final declaration we will seek to have a strong call for action,” said Mr Ba.
But the AMI boss added that improving journalists’ safety will have to come from the industry itself, including the upholding of high standards and ethics so as to remove loopholes governments could exploit.
The organisation is working on a charter for the industry to be presented in Tunis for the media leader’s approval.
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