By Ochieng Agolla
The conviction of Nairobi-based Aljazeera journalist Peter Greste and two of his colleagues in Egypt last week elicited international condemnation from international press and human rights organisation. Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Mohamed Bare were sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding terrorists and endangering national security. Analysts see the conviction as an attempt to silence the media in Egypt as the case lacked any meaningful evidence to warrant a conviction.
The case of Greste and his colleagues is not the first and it will not be the last but it is a stark reminder of the challenges that journalists in Africa face on a regular basis. Many are imprisoned in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia just to name a few while others have fled into exile to escape from imminent arrest. In most cases, the charges are dubious and tied to vague laws pertaining to national security. Others face incidences of violence, intimidation and harassment. In Ethiopia, for instance, journalist Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison in July 2012 under an anti-terrorism proclamation law.
Prior to his detention, Eskinder had published an online column critical of the use of the terrorism law to silence dissents and called on the Ethiopian government to respect freedom of expression. Reeyot Alemu is another journalist serving a five-year sentence after being arrested in June 2011. She was charged under the controversial terrorism law for planning and conspiring in a terrorist act; possessing property for terrorist acts and participating in the promotion or communication of a terrorist act.
In April this year, Ethiopian authorities arrested nine journalists and bloggers on allegations they worked for foreign human rights groups or used social media to incite violence. Zone 9 is an independent group of bloggers who use social media to campaign against political repression in Ethiopia. Closer home, the Eastern Africa region still records high cases of violations against journalists. From January this year, Article 19 has so far recorded at least 27 cases of violations against journalists and media houses in the region.
More worrying is the fact that most of these cases go unpunished largely because perpetrators are rarely apprehended and charged for violations against journalists. Most governments in the region are not comfortable with a free press because they do not want issues touching on corruption and impunity reported. In May last year, two media houses were shut down in Uganda for publishing what the government deemed as false allegations touching on the state. This month, NTV Uganda, one of those that had been shut down, was banned from covering President Yoweri Museveni after they aired a clip showing him sleeping during the reading of the budget.
The government saying it is his habit to close his eyes while meditating. In September 2012, Tanzania journalist Daudi Mwangosi was brutally murdered at the hands of the police. The perpetrators were never arrested. The following year, the Tanzania Editors’ Forum Absalom Kibanda was viciously attacked in an incident that sent a strong message of intent against journalists. In March this year, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that the failure of a government to diligently seek and bring to account the persons responsible for the assassination of a journalist, intimidates the media; has a chilling effect on free expression; violates the human rights of journalists; endangers truth, and therefore governments should be required to take the appropriate steps.
The ruling was made in the case of Nobert Zongo, publisher and editor of the Burkina Faso newspaper l’Indépendant,who was assassinated on December 13, 1998. The journalist at the time was investigating the murder of a driver who had worked for the brother of President Blaise Compaoré. These cases point to repressive regimes that use intimidation, violence and at times murder to silence journalists and curtail freedom of the press. African governments should support freedom of the press and investigate violations against journalists. The press is critical in as far as access to information is concerned.
Most of these countries commit to the protection of human rights yet in practice they do the exact opposite. Most importantly, these countries must get rid of punitive laws that are used to imprison journalists in the name of national security. While the case of Greste has attracted international coverage largely because of the media agency he works for, many more journalists have suffered similar fate yet they remain unknown and their cases may never receive the same amount of international coverage. The writer comments on topical issues.