In many parts of Africa, those who set out to become journalists with the independent press better be prepared to work with media organizations whose operations are hobbled in various ways. Problems range from logistical to material, and reporters and editors at these news organizations operate in an environment in which active hostility from government and others is the norm. Government-controlled media have much better funding, and the journalists who work there find better facilities and an easier life. But it seems something of an oxymoron to call the practices of the government-owned press “journalism,” since what they do is churn out propaganda that serves not the public but the regime that owns and controls them.

With some exceptions, independent media in Africa fail to receive substantial advertising revenue because they write or broadcast in markets where the money needed to support them is not forthcoming and where few people have the disposable incomes to buy news publications. In Rwanda, a person will never become rich by becoming a journalist. The situation there tends to perpetuate a vicious cycle in which poorly paid journalists soon lose their motivation to do the work they started out doing, and they become susceptible to practices like accepting monetary “inducements” to write stories favorable to those individuals or organizations paying these favors. Soon this lessens a publication’s credibility, which in turn means even fewer people will buy the product. Many of these independent newspapers have closed their offices after only a few years in operation.

However, even problems as difficult as these would be overcome were it not for the antagonism that most African governments have for freethinking journalists and independent media houses. Many of the continent’s regimes are highly undemocratic; a good number of them are led by people who shot their way to power after ruinous rebel wars. Others “inherited” power and, occasionally, a leader might legitimately win an election. What almost all of these leaders have in common is that once they are in power they entrench themselves at the expense of everything else. They rig elections, and they divert the constitution or rewrite it to contain provisions for a lifetime presidency. They deal with political opponents or dissidents by locking them up indefinitely in degrading conditions. They also legislate draconian press laws to muzzle the inquisitive, critical elements of the press.

Journalism Requires Courage

It is an act of extreme courage for African journalists who are inclined to freedom of thought to keep publishing or broadcasting their opinions and views. During my time as a journalist working in Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, I’ve had the privilege to interact with incredibly brave journalists from all over the continent who are working under the most adverse circumstances. Onome Osifo-Whiskey, an editor with a Nigerian magazine, Tell, recounted the ordeals he and his small team of journalists went through during the regime of Sani Abacha, the notorious late military dictator of Nigeria. Osifo-Whiskey’s publication was the constant target of military raids, arrests and physical abuse of its journalists, who lived with constant death threats. During a particularly bad period, the magazine devised a strategy to adopt a “mobile” newsroom, operating from unlikely areas such as motor vehicle service stations and abandoned warehouses.

“Africa Through the Eyes of African Reporters”
– Geoffrey Nyarota
The plight of the independent press in Zimbabwe under the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, has been well chronicled. Journalists have been tortured, harassed and run out of the country, and their offices bombed or vandalized. Geoffrey Nyarota, founding editor of The Daily News who now lives in the United States, became the public face of beleaguered Zimbabwe journalism. His paper’s offices in Harare were bombed, and he and his journalists were constantly harassed by state agents. Finally he had to flee his country.

In Uganda the country’s only independent daily, The Monitor, regularly experiences heavy doses of government wrath. Journalists at The Monitor are thrown in jail for writing reports deemed “dangerous for national security,” and once or twice the publication has been closed down by the state, its computers impounded, and entire issues confiscated. Such is the case in countries like the Congo, Eritrea, Sudan and others that also share a reputation for scant respect for human rights.

Rwanda, too, has shown little inclination to treat the independent press as an important partner for the development of the country and for a better future. When a journalist exposed a scam in which a high-ranking military officer pocketed kickbacks during the purchase of defective choppers for the military, he found himself speedily put behind bars. It wasn’t until after three months in jail that he had an initial court hearing. Another journalist, Amiel Nkuriza, who is with the newspaper Le Partisan, served an even longer prison term—three years—without ever going to trial. Afterwards, it came to light that he was jailed for writing opinions deemed “dangerous for national unity and reconciliation.” These are just a few examples of what happens to dissenting journalists in Rwanda.

Rwandan Government Retribution

I, too, have been in serious trouble with the Rwandan authorities for crossing certain boundaries as a journalist. Not long after a couple of other journalists and I began a small weekly, Rwanda Newsline, in 1999, we were being regularly hauled to the public prosecutor’s offices on charges mainly related to “publishing false news.” We intended the Newsline to be a crusading voice against corruption and misuse of power in high places and public offices; it goes without saying that we trod on too many powerful toes.

Things became truly alarming in 2000, when a general summoned us to military headquarters in Kigali to reveal our sources for a piece I wrote. In this article, I detailed the misery that members of the Rwandan army faced fighting wars in the neighboring Congo, a country Rwanda invaded to flush out bands of Interahamwe militias, the main killers during the 1994 genocide. In the article, I also raised questions about the legality of the wealth that high-ranking military officials obtained to build mansions in swanky outskirts of Kigali.

The general was in a rage when another colleague and I arrived with much trepidation at military headquarters. He proceeded to give us a tongue-lashing. Essentially, he told us that what we’d written about the military amounted to treasonous offenses since it could easily encourage the enemy in its battles against our army. We left there feeling very scared and even contemplated fleeing the country but decided against doing so at that point.

Things became worse for us. We came under constant attack in the government-owned media and, at meetings called by government officials, we were castigated for being “negative elements.” The few advertisers we had suddenly terminated their relationships with us, expressing the sincere regret that given the situation they could not go on doing business with us. Military men visited our offices regularly, sticking around for hours. And threatening phone calls became routine. Nevertheless, we resolutely went on with our work, and somehow no harm befell us, except when someone decided to shoot a gun near me as I was returning home one evening.

For me, things came to a head when a former president who had turned political dissident invited a couple of other journalists and me to his house to announce he was forming a new opposition party. Pasteur Bizimungu, Rwanda’s first president after the genocide, had, by then, fallen out badly with Paul Kagame, the general who had led the forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to victory after a four-year civil war and the genocide. Bizimungu was the country’s president, but General Kagame held the real power. In 2000, Bizimungu resigned in very bitter circumstances, and Kagame became the new president. For a time, Bizimungu was under de facto house arrest, and he remained quiet for a year.

When he called with the invitation, we were excited at receiving what we thought was a scoop. Instead, when we arrived we were placed under arrest by military men who came out of side streets near Bizimungu’s house. We were taken to Criminal Investigation Department headquarters for interrogation, and we spent the night in a dark basement. I thought this was it—that we would spend several years in a basement and no one would know where we were. Fortunately, news of what happened at Bizimungu’s place filtered out, and major international radio stations like the BBC broadcast the story. The following morning we were out. The stink would have been too much even for Kagame’s government had three journalists disappeared all of a sudden.

I decided not to take any more chances, and a few days later I caught a flight to Kampala, in neighboring Uganda. A number of other colleagues also decided to leave. Not long after, Rwanda Newsline went out of business. A few months later I flew to South Africa and sought asylum, and in a while I found work as a freelance writer for the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian. Back in Rwanda, Bizimungu was detained in Kigali Central Prison, accused of being a divisive and negative influence in Rwanda. He still languishes in prison.

After a year in South Africa, I was invited to become a Nieman Fellow. When that fellowship ended, I returned to Rwanda, but I have not engaged in full-scale journalism since. Instead, I work as an information and media consultant for the UNHCR, the U.N. agency for refugees. The one independent paper in Rwanda, Umuseso, a sister paper to Newsline that is published in the local Kinyarwanda language, is now in much trouble. A few months ago, three of its journalists were locked up and charged with publishing a false report. They were released, but now they are running scared.

Shyaka Kanuma, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, was cofounder and senior writer with Rwandan Newsline, a former independent newspaper. He has been contributing articles for publications in Eastern Africa and South Africa while working full time as an information and media consultant for UNHCR, the U.N. agency for refugees in Rwanda. In the fall, he will pursue a master’s degree in journalism at City University in London as a recipient of a British government scholarship.

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