Note to African governments: Protecting journalists is good PR, if nothing else

By Simon Allison 12 November 2013

Here’s a free communications tip for African governments: if you want to make a story go away, beating up the journalists covering it isn’t going to help. By SIMON ALLISON.

When will they learn? We live, for better or worse, in the golden age of information. Censorship doesn’t work. It can’t work when there are so many different channels and streams from which we can broadcast the news; and there are so many people, far and beyond those who call themselves journalists, who take responsibility for making sure stories get out.

It’s about time African governments caught up with the new reality. Cack-handed attempts to intimidate or silence journalists only make the story bigger – and generate even more of that negative publicity which they are so keen to avoid in the first place.

It’s a lesson that Mozambique learnt the hard way last week. Two journalists from the privately-run TIM television station – Alexandre Rosa, the chief news editor, and Claudio Timana, a cameraman – visited an army barracks in the Malhampsene neighbourhood in the southern city of Matola. They were responding to a tip-off from someone in the local community. The soldiers and the local community are engaged in a land dispute, and citizens were planning a protest march on the barracks.

The protests turned ugly, and the journalists came in for particular attention from soldiers who did not take kindly to their presence. Soldiers kicked and beat Rosa with the butts of their rifles; so badly that he had to be taken, unconscious, to a nearby hospital. Timana was also beaten, and detained in the barracks.

It didn’t take long for the news of their beating to surface – bringing with it a national and international spotlight onto why they were beaten in the first place. If the soldiers’ goal was to keep the land dispute quiet, or keep their violent reaction to the land dispute quiet, then it backfired quite spectacularly. This is especially ironic because the barracks in question housed the Mozambican Armed Forces communications school. Perhaps those soldiers should have been paying more attention in class.

Defending the soldiers’ actions, the Defence Ministry released a statement saying the journalists shouldn’t have been there in the first place; that they lacked “a credential”, the necessary official permissions. This is another example of out-dated, impossible-to-enforce thinking. Aside from the obvious philosophical problem – to have the state dictating which public protests journalists can and can’t cover effectively eviscerates the ability of journalist to hold the state to account – it also fails to realise that, credentials or no credentials, information (along with images) will find a way out through social media and cellphone camera recordings which are almost impossible to police.

Even in China, where the Great Firewall restricts citizens’ access to the internet and armies of censors monitor social media in real-time, it doesn’t take much technical know-how to access (or publish) banned information. When I was in Beijing earlier this year, a simple search on Google for ‘free proxy server’ gave me full access to the unregulated internet – and all that dangerous, subversive knowledge. And it didn’t take long last month for images of the suicide bombing in Tiananmen Square to circulate widely, despite the censors’ attempts to halt the sharing.

As numbers of smartphones and internet connectivity increases in Africa, so these old-fashioned attempts to silence journalists through physical intimidation will become even more difficult to enforce – and even more likely to backfire, especially as the journalism community on the continent is getting braver and more vocal about calling governments to account.

Last week, at the African Media Leaders Forum in Addis Ababa – an admittedly strange place to hold an African media conference, giving the Ethiopian government’s abysmal record when it comes to locking up reporters and critics – Trevor Ncube, publisher of the Mail & Guardian, stood up and gave a stirring critique of the way the host government treats journalists, with a number of high-profile government figures in the audience. His comments were well-received by the assembled African media practitioners (and widely broadcast on Twitter), and deeply embarrassing for Ethiopia – all the more so because they came not from some easily-dismissed western rights organisation, but from one of the most respected publishers on the continent.

Not that those rights groups should be dismissed. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and especially the Committee to Protect Journalists do an excellent job of publicising dangers to journalists and advocating for redress – and are often the only voices speaking up.

In a recent Guardian article on the plight of jailed Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Naga, South African author Zakes Mda emphasised how important that Africans don’t ignore the issues. “What is happening in Ethiopia is a disgrace. An African like me, who is enjoying freedom in South Africa, should have long ago protested this case in the loudest of voices. My silence was complicity. It is important to curb the impunity with which some African governments act against the rights of their citizens. If Ethiopia can get away with it, so will your country next time, and you’ll be the victim. It is first and foremost out of human decency that our voices should be heard. But it is also out of self-interest as prospective victims of repression. As the saying goes, if we are silent today, when they come for us there will be no one left to speak.”

And the louder we speak, the sooner guilty African governments (and there are a lot of them) will realise that protecting instead of persecuting journalists is in their own favour, too. Not only for a stronger, more balanced and better-informed society; but also because the public relations cost of intimidation and censorship will outweigh whatever it was those heavy-handed tactics were designed to cover up in the first place; and also because, in the information age, nothing stays covered up for long anyway. DM

Photo: Somali journalists wait during an assignment at the Presidential Palace in the capital Mogadishu February 2, 2013. In more than two decades of conflict, last year was the deadliest on record for journalists in Somalia, with 18 killed, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists. Journalists have been among the victims since Somalia descended into war in the early 1990s. The continuing dangers have not deterred Somali journalists as al-Shabaab’s departure has spurred a media revival. REUTERS/Feisal Omar


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