What you need to know:
- Many journalists have been forced to flee their countries because they are deemed to be working against those in power.
- This is the subject of a new book, Hounded: African Journalists in Exile.
Many consumers of news take it for granted that they should be able to read their newspaper, watch their television channel or listen to their favourite radio station without problems.
Regular consumers of media would hardly be interested in how news and information is gathered, aggregated, edited, presented, published and disseminated.
These days the availability of several sources of news – unlike in the recent past when it was really just the newspaper, radio and TV – at the touch of a phone screen or computer keypad or connection to an FM radio, among others, has even made it less worth the bother of the media consumer to know the circumstances under which the media works.
Yet it can be very dangerous for the journalist or editor who goes out there – physically or virtually – to gather the info and news that the audience expects every day. It can sometimes be a matter of life and death for a journalist whose only interest in a story is to report it to the audience. Some have been killed. Others have been jailed, or endlessly harassed, or denied a chance to earn a living, or forced into exile.
Many African journalists have been forced to flee their countries simply because they were deemed to be working against the interests of the government or of certain people in power.
This is the subject of a new book, Hounded: African Journalists in Exile (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2021) edited by long-serving Kenyan journalist and media trainer Joe Odindo. This is a collection of the testimonies of 16 African journalists from across the continent who at one time or another were forced to leave their native countries and go into exile because their lives were threatened due to their work.
The editor of the book describes it in these words: “Hounded is both a tribute and a record of history. It’s an acknowledgment of the commitment to truth and justice in little-known corners of the continent – the clattered desk of a lone blogger in Ethiopia, bustling newsroom in Burundi and the dimly-lit studio of a Lagos pirate radio – which has kept the flame of hope burning under the most stifling or political rules.”
Hounded from their homes
But how do journalists and newswomen disturb politicians or governments? Or, rather, why do governments and or powerful people bother journalists? Generally, all governments rely on the media to sell their stories, ideologies and policies. Newspapers, radio and TV stations, websites etc retail to citizens what the government often wishes them to know.
In some sense the media is the 4th Estate as it influences the affairs of the State alongside the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The press significantly reports on these three branches of the State, often mediating between them by reporting on the activities and policies of each one of them. Consequently, it sits between the three arms of the State and the citizens. And that middle role is what tends to lead to conflict between it and the State.
In the 16 stories in Hounded, the different journalists speak of simply doing their work – collecting and publishing stories in newspapers or on blogs; or broadcasting the stories on radio or TV – but suddenly finding themselves charged with all manner of crimes – treason; misreporting; likely to cause public tension etc.
These individuals become victims of doing what they love; what they earn a living from; what they think is informing, educating or entertaining the public. In each of the 16 cases, the journalist in question did not necessarily set out to antagonize the State.
In some cases, they actually worked for the very same government that hounded them from their workplaces and homes, forcing them to cross borders clandestinely, and endure long periods of seeking refuge in foreign lands.
The case of Fathi Osman from Eritrea, who was forced to flee into exile in France, suggests how difficult working conditions can be for an African journalist. Here is reporter who worked for a government newspaper but who would be assaulted and thrown into jail for reporting on corruption in government.
Later, his attempts to do an investigative story would be stopped, forcing him eventually to join the diplomatic services. Luckily for him, working outside Eritrea enabled him to abandon government work and seek asylum, an opportunity that very few Eritreans would ever have to escape from the ‘iron curtain’ that envelopes their country. Others have never been so lucky to escape unscathed.
Speaking truth to power
From The Gambia to Lesotho, Cameroon, Somalia, to Burundi, the different reporters speak about the cost of ‘speaking truth to power.’ In fact, the title of this review comes from the story of Fred Muvunyi from Rwanda who found out the hard way that the State would spare no efforts to demonstrate who had the power in a contest between it and truth-seeking journalists.
Muvunyi was the chairperson of the Rwanda Media Commission, an independent body that was supposed to regulate the media, implement the code of conduct for media practitioners but also protect journalists. He would run into serious headwinds when the state sought his help in suspending the BBC for airing a programme that the State didn’t like. By insisting that the state follow the law in dealing with the BBC, Muvunyi was seen as an ‘enemy’ of the State. Exile was the only recourse he had.
But the ones who manage to go into exile are only partially lucky. Many others are harassed, jailed or killed. Keiso Mohloboli from Lesotho speak of unspeakable violence from the government, which led to her exile and personal and family trauma, even though she returned ‘home’.
Makalia N’Guebla from Chad tells of the tragedy of being stuck in foreign countries without official travel documents whilst haunted by agents of the State. On the other hand, Soleyana Shimeles Gebremichael narrates of being ‘forced into exile and then charged with terrorism’ in absentia for being part of a blogging collective that had challenged the Ethiopian state’s actions against opposition to its rule. Soleyana’s friends in the collective Zone9 were arrested, detained, and charged.
All these cases forcefully, if not sadly, illustrate the state of media freedom and democracy in Africa. Unfortunately, the two live side by side. One cannot speak of democracy without invoking media freedom and access to information. Democracy thrives where the press can question government policies and actions, as well as scrutinise the behaviour of State officers and agents.
Where there is a deficit of democracy, as it is in many parts of Africa, the press is an endangered species. Journalists who seek information and hope to provoke debate on issues such as resource distribution, abuse of public office, corruption, police violence etc will suffer debilitating consequences.
Exile is not a luxury, especially when one is forced to escape from their country with mere documents and the clothes they are wearing. In exile one has to establish new roots – social, economic, cultural etc – and live with the trauma of forced migration.
This is the kind of life the likes of Kenya’s Pius Nyamora had to contend with after being hounded from Kenya for publishing Society and consequently being bankrupted by the State. It is a cost only the individual will ever be able to calculate.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.email@example.com