Kagame and Mugabe among violators of press freedom

Journalists in Nairobi take part in a demonstration to protests against gag on press freedoms. Photo/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Reporters without borders name eight countries that inhibit journalists’ work

There are powerful people behind press freedom violations whose responsibility is not always apparent. Whether presidents, ministers, religious leaders or the heads of armed groups, these predators of press freedom have the power to censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and, in the worst cases, murder journalists. Reporters Without Borders has produced these portraits:

Somalia’s Islamist militias – Al Shabaab and Hizb-Al-Islam
There is no sign of any respite for Somalia after 20 years of war. Islamist insurgents have contributed to the chaos by waging a war of harassment against the transitional government.

Al Shabaab (The Youth) has emerged as the biggest and best organised of these groups. It wages a campaign of terror and targeted murders against members of Somali civil society.

Regarded almost by definition as enemies, journalists have also been killed. Nine of them were caught in crossfire or were directly targeted by the various militia factions in 2009.

Radio Shabelle paid a heavy price, losing its director, Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe, and three of its reporters in months. Other Radio Shabelle employees fled the country.

In May 2008, the group tried to kill Bisharo Mohammed Waeys, the last woman to openly work as a journalist in the northern territory of Puntland – she does not wear a headscarf on TV.

Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame looks more like a modern politician than the former guerrilla chief and war lord who played a murky role in his country’s recent history.

President since 2000, Kagame does not tolerate embarrassing questions at news conferences, often denigrates journalists and brands outspoken media as “Radio Mille Collines.”

Every year several Rwandan journalists go into exile. This does not worry President Kagame, who refers to journalists as “mercenaries” and “bums”.

Local retransmission of the BBC was banned last year because of a programme about the genocide that strayed from the official line. The authorities constantly harass two newspapers, Umuvugizi.

Both were closed for six months in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

Mugabe stepped the pressure on the media after his government’s electoral setbacks in 2008. Editors were placed under electronic surveillance to check their loyalty to the party.

Mugabe has no problem with the arbitrary arrests and harassment to which most of the country’s journalists are exposed.

In 2002, he was the architect of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the sole aim of which was to finish off the privatelyowned press, above all The Daily News, then the country’s most widely-read daily.

Mugabe is to blame for the fact that Zimbabweans nowadays have no independent dailies or radio stations.

Eritrea’s president Issaias Afeworki

Eritrea has the distinction of being Africa’s youngest republic and at the same governed by its most ruthless dictator. A former rebel chief and hero of Eritrea’s war of liberation, he makes no bones about his totalitarian tendencies.

Privately-owned media no longer exist. There are just state media whose content is worthy of the Soviet era. Around 30 journalists are currently held in its 314 prison camps and detention centres. Four of them have died. Others have just disappeared.

But when President Afeworki is asked about the imprisoned journalists, as he was by Al Jazeera in May 2008, he replies: “There were never any. There aren’t any. You have been misinformed.”

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh

A self-proclaimed healer who says he has found cures to AIDS, obesity and erectile dysfunction, Yahya Jammeh has all the qualities of an unpredictable dictator.

The murder of Deyda Hydara, AFP correspondent and editor of the tri-weekly The Point, who was shot dead on a street in 2004, continues to fuel tension between the regime and independent media.

Chief Ebrima Manneh, a reporter for the Daily Observer, was arrested without charge in 2006 and then disappeared. He probably died in prison in 2008.

Swaziland’s King Mswati III

With an HIV/AIDS prevalence of about 40 per cent, a soaring poverty rate and no viable economy, foreign investors have thrown in the sponge.

Swaziland is self-destructing and if there is a single person to blame it is clearly King Mswati III. State-owned media only carry reports that have been checked and approved by the information minister. Independent journalists find it extremely hard to access official information.

Criticising the king is inconceivable. In November 2008, the justice minister warned that journalists who criticised the government. A journalist working for the Times of Swaziland, the only privately-owned newspaper, had to apologise publicly to the king in January 2009 after writing a series of irreverent articles.

Other predators named are Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and Nigeria, Ogbonna Onovo, Inspector General of Police.