Woes of the African Journalist

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
March 12, 2001

When four journalists linked to a British media institution were bundled-up and jailed on frivolous espionage charges by Liberia's dictator Charles Taylor, the world barked. Nelson Mandela sent pleading messages to the "strongman", a man he had once lavishly entertained as a visiting, fellow African president. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, always keen on not missing an opportunity to champion good causes for media and public attention, stormed the CNN pleading the men's case. International media institutions threw their influence behind the men. The arrests became a global media sensation which human rights organizations were just too happy to exploit for the needed headlines. Now that four poor Liberian journalists working for an obscure media outlet have been grabbed on an identical charge and dumped into a madman's dungeon, their plight remains the reserve of their families and a few media organizations with human rights agendas. The jailed men are Africans. Their agony makes no news on a continent buried in ghastlier horrors.

Caught firmly in the clutches of intolerance and senile tyranny, the African journalist continues to pay the thankless price for independent thinking. From Sierra Leone to Algeria (where at least 69 journalists have been killed since 1993), Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, etc., the story of the African journalist is the basically same: summary executions, arbitrary arrests, closure of media outlets, economic deprivation, and exile. Africa has registered one of the highest numbers of killed journalists in recent times.

Hence the case of the Liberian journalists follows a typical pattern of how the world sees horrors and injustice. What claims world attention, despite all the mammoth campaigns and rhetoric about human rights and democracy, has to do with one's nationality or race. Horrific abuses and events in Africa hardly get attention except when linked to European or American names or interests. For example, few in Europe knew if a country called Guinea existed. But this has changed since a European, The Netherlands' Ruud Lubbers, is now head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UHNCR) faced with mounting refugee problems in that country. Guinea is now known, particularly in Holland. His presence there is news, and if the plight of tens of thousands of refugees is mentioned in passing, good luck! (This is journalism, what used to be called "Afghanistanism" - distant issues not to bother home readers with. But with refugees storming Europe daily in search of Paradise, should this change? )

After the Liberian journalists were arrested, Taylor consoled confidantes not to worry about international outcry. "They will get tired and shut up", he reportedly declared. Indeed! For weeks now, despite their apology (following the example of the British journalists) in anticipation of freedom, they languish in insect-infested cells with fading hopes of a free trial or freedom. President Jimmy Carter, one of the international notables instrumental in the release of the British journalists, and who in 1997 assured Liberians that such abuses were "inconceivable" under a President Taylor, has kept his silence as many others have. The issue is not big enough to attract his noble attention. This is the curse of the African, be he or she a journalist, a pro-democracy activist. You have a few allies. You take your risks and bear the consequences. Has the once unknown now acclaimed Sierra Leone's Soros Samora not been born by the CNN and given a human face, he would have rotted in Liberia's notorious prisons as a faceless, nameless victim.

But in some cases, the African journalist is his/her crucifier. Often blinded by material offers from sinister individuals, many have sacrificed their long-term interests - the coveted freedom to think freely and write freely-for short-term financial gain. In Liberia in 1997, few journalists saw the innate evil they were selling and promoting as a savoir. Faced with enormous personal economic problems exacerbated by the war, they placed their pens and minds at the service of men and women who would soon escort them to the gallows once elected. Many Liberian journalists could not see that their colleagues responsible for oiling the repressive propaganda machine of Samuel Doe junta were either dead or had fled. The human folly - "it will not happen to me" - ruled their minds and directed their pens. In most of Africa, the problem is the same. Note the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) in its 1998 report:

"The African media, moreover, are heavily politicised by the endemic cash shortage. Journalists often take bribes from powerful elites, either to hush up embarrassing news or to exaggerate potentially good news. Thus, editorial independence is severely compromised, not only in the state media, but also in the currently expanding private media sectorCallous thieves like the former dictators Mubutu and Abacha brought billions of dollars to their personal bank accounts abroad, and thus undermined crucial for growth and prosperity ­and press freedom in their countries. The small-time despots, similarly, attempt to justify the silencing of critical media with the pretexts like 'integrity of the state', national security' or reputation and prestige of the country and its army...."

Whatever the shortcomings, the woes of the African journalist are inexcusable. When a European journalist returning from Malawi castigated that country's journalists, accusing all of being influenced by "brown envelopes" (bribes), it indicated the contempt with which African journalists are held. Poor, heavily underpaid, hunted down by soldiers, political and rebel leaders, ignored by civil society when taken to the hangman's ropes, the typical African journalist lives from day to day, without any idea of what tomorrow holds. Overwhelmed by oppressive forces, the freedom to develop ideas is hampered. Repeated arrests and imprisonment, torture, dampen the mind, reducing it to a zombie object. It no longer knows how to function properly. Fear is a deadly weapon against the mind. These terror tactics against ideas simply deprive one of his/her humanity. The environment for creativity, for investigative and probing journalism, even for developing literature, is plagued with dangers. Critical thinking is disallowed, replaced by sheepish obedience, fear and mediocrity. Journalism in Africa is a dangerous, poor man's profession reserved mostly for idealistic crusaders expected to foster democracy but left in their sorrows by the larger society.

If men are products of their society and surroundings, then the African journalist is no exception. A European journalist who returned from Liberia recently preached that politics must be removed from journalism. A classic sermon beyond question, except when one begins to define what constitutes politics in an African setting. The detained Liberian journalists wrote a story, based on documents from the Ministry of Finance, detailing how Taylor is siphoning funds from the state in the midst of ingrained poverty - no water, no electricity, no schools, etc. This was after Taylor rightly declared that he was wealthier than the state and had no reason to take money from it because, "It is not there." He said whatever he has in terms of his monumental wealth is provided "by my friends." He challenged journalists to countercheck his claims with the Ministry of Finance. When they did, he threw them in jail on "espionage." This, by African standards, is "politics". Were the European journalist sermonizing for divorcing "politics" from journalism an African, he would have regretted reaching such conclusions. Or were he a journalist in Europe between 1939 and 1945 or even in the former Yugoslavia, would he have reached such conclusions? Europeans, particularly their journalists, were fanatically involved in the battle against fascism in every form. Demonising Hitler and his Nazis was objective journalism. The more one beat the drums of Nazi demonization, and justifiably so, the better a journalist one was. In today's world, the yardsticks are different, particularly when it comes to African journalism. To insist that men (such as Taylor and Foday Sankoh or Jonas Savimbi) who recruit children to fight their wars of personal wealth are cruel, is to be "political" and therefore becoming "anti-government" newspaper or a pro-rebel one, etc. To remain consistent against men and women, who loot their societies, recruit Europeans to help them complete the job of imposing poverty and misery, is to be "partisan". It is not the nature of a report that counts, but its source. European journalists are presumed to be godlike figures who take no sides, make no mistakes, with no personal or political beliefs except the pious search and dissemination of "truth" as seen by them. On the other spectrum, African journalists are compromised, greedy lairs. This is a stereotype difficult to oppose, although there are significant "success stories." For example, the BBC's African luminary, Elizabeth Ohene, because of her virulent opposition against anything Ghana's Jerry Rawlings represented, was embraced as a fine example in African journalism. Now that she has returned home as a "spokeswoman" to serve a politician she admires and endorses, should the BBC withdraw its credentials?

If the African journalist is compromised, the picture of pious objectivity and holy truth that emerged of the media during the Bosnian war similarly indicted the European media. Writes Peter Goff of the International Press Institute:

"Nato set out to demonise President Milosevic in order to justify the bombings in a simplified manner and to squarely lay the blame for the tragic effects of war at the Yugoslav President's feet. To a great extent the media took their cue from Nato leaders and spokesmen and built stories around the dictatorial, demonic Milosevic,. Very often an observer could be forgiven for believing that the bombs endangering the President himself. Comparison with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were only frequently drawn to compound public support and intensify the propaganda drumbeat..."

The jailed Liberian journalists are victims of their origin. Few would deny that in our world, one's country and citizenship is a stamp that determines life or death, prison or freedom. A British woman held in Saudi Arabia is freed largely because she is British. If she had been from an unknown country, no matter the flimsy evidence against her, death or long imprisonment would have been assured. American citizens arrested in Zimbabwe are released. If they were men from other unknown parts of the globe, the story would have been different. The detained Liberian journalists are held on the identical charge on which the British journalists were held. But the British journalists became heroes, just as the South African journalist who gained his fame by escaping from Apartheid South because he covered Steve Biko, murdered by the Afrikaners.

So the African journalist is on his own, fighting a losing battle, as the world, now accustomed to African horrors, looks the other way. It is difficult to fight against "the law", said a member of Index for Censorship in Britain when requested to campaign against the clampdown on a newspaper in Liberia. And in Liberia, the only known political leader to join the defense of the journalists is long-time pro-democracy activist Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh. The ineptitude and selfishness of Liberia's politicians is coming to light, for without a free press, their own liberties and dreams, as those of others, are endangered.

In reality, though, the justification for blaming others for not rescuing African journalists from the tentacles of repression is weak. Africans should be responsible for fighting and ensuring their own freedoms. Every society deserves the type of leadership it has, for people determined to rid themselves of stupid tyranny can muster the strength and will to achieve their objective. If they refuse to act, then indeed they deserve what they have. So it is with Liberia as with many African states.

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