For his reporting exposing corrupt business practices, journalist Carlos Alberto Cardoso was gunned down by assassins hired by organized business interests in Maputo, Mozambique on the evening of November 22, 2000. Their goal: to silence him.

This was an unusual attack on a journalist in the sense that most of the actions taken against journalists in countries that comprise the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—An-gola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—involve actions taken by the government. In the Cardoso case, the businessmen and their hired guns were convicted of this crime and are now serving lengthy prison terms.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), based in Windhoek, Namibia, was formed in 1992 with an SADC regional mandate of promoting the provisions of the Windhoek Declaration of May 1991 that declared “independent, pluralistic and free press” essential for democracy and economic development. Since its founding, MISA has monitored, investigated and reported on media freedom violations in 11 of the 14 SADC countries. (MISA does not operate in DRC, Mauritius and Seychelles.)

Death, assault, detentions and imprisonment have characterized the difficult situation faced by journalists in these countries during the past 10 years as relationships among media and governments have deteriorated. As journalists work to hold government officials accountable to the people and to democratic norms, these governments have intensified their clampdown on the media through actions meant to stifle and silence their voices. The space for political debate and dissent in the region is being squeezed tightly as governments enact legislation aimed at suppressing the independence of the media and providing avenues by which to punish those who might publish stories of government wrongdoing.

Media Repression

The intensification of media violations takes its greatest toll on journalists who work in countries whose governments exhibit dictatorial and authoritative tendencies. Among the SADC countries, Angola, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi are the more repressive environments in which journalists attempt to work.

Angola: Reporting on activities of the president and government officials whether in caricature, print or broadcast is one of the most dangerous assignments for journalists in Angola. In March 2000, Rafael Marques, a freelance journalist and Aguiar dos Santos, the director of the independent weekly newspaper, Agora, were convicted of defaming, injuring and slandering President José Eduardo dos Santos in an article Marques wrote and published in Agora, “The Lipstick of Dictatorship.” His crime: describing the president as a dictator “responsible for the destruction of the country and the promotion of corruption.” Marques was convicted on an additional charge of defaming, injuring and slandering Angolan Attorney General Domingos Culolo. Covering the leader of the opposition party has also posed serious threats to Angolan journalists. Doing this has resulted in many journalists being banned, imprisoned, censored and excluded from official press conferences. In August 1999, journalists working for the church radio station, Radio Ecclesia, were arrested, their materials confiscated, and the radio station was shut down for some hours for broadcasting an interview the BBC had done with UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

Zimbabwe: Working here as a journalist has become dangerous. As the government becomes more paranoid about losing power, it has passed repressive legislation that criminalizes the work of journalists, who are required to apply for annual licenses from a government appointed and controlled media commission, which requires that they work for “registered” media houses. Freelance journalists must provide proof of agreements with those to whom they will be selling stories and supply samples of previous journalistic work to be licensed. Only Zimbabwean nationals who reside in the country are allowed to be “foreign correspondents,” which has forced most of those who were working there as foreign correspondents to leave since they are denied licenses to do their job. Some were forcibly made to leave, as was the case with the Guardian’s Andrew Meldrum in May 2003.

“The Government Silenced Zimbabwe’s Only Independent Newspaper”
– Yvonne van der Heijden
Within a year of passage of these laws, more than 80 journalists were arrested and detained under spurious charges including writing “falsehoods” or “creating a feeling of despondency against the president.” In April 2004, the Zimbabwe Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo reportedly said that the country has enough prison space for local journalists who peddle “lies” in the foreign media. To date, no journalist has been convicted, though harassment of the independent media by the government is rampant. The new regulations have also left many journalists without jobs.

Not satisfied with harsh treatment of journalists, the government effectively shut down three independent newspapers that have been critical of the government after realizing that bombing their printing presses and offices failed to silence them. The few independent newspapers remaining are not assured of continuing their operations since their two-year registration is up for renewal in December 2004. Moyo has called the Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard weekly newspapers “running dogs of imperialism,” and in October 2003 he said “we should shut these papers down because they are trash; they injured our national interest.” Moyo made this statement just a month after the independent Daily News and Daily News on Sunday ceased publication.

The justice system has been effectively used in silencing the independent media in Zimbabwe. In the now famous “dirt hands” doctrine saga, the Supreme Court ruled that The Daily News must register first before their case could be considered. When the publishers applied to register, they were told that they could not be registered since they were already operating illegally.

Swaziland: Reporting on the king’s private life as well as his many wives and would-be-wives gets journalists in trouble, since such reporting is considered disrespectful of the monarchy, a punishable taboo. Five years ago, then-Sunday Times editor, Bheki Makumbu, learned this when he was detained for publishing an article detailing the background of one of the king’s fiancées. The intolerance of the monarchy does not only limit itself to independent publications. In March 2000, the state-owned and controlled Swazi Observer was shut down ostensibly because of financial difficulties, but it later emerged that the real reason for its closure was its critical reporting about the monarchy, its errant governing, and the paper’s refusal to reveal sources of its information. The paper reopened in February 2001, but the editor and senior journalists responsible for these earlier reports were not among the rehired employees. The Guardian of Swaziland was also banned in May 2001 and remains closed today because of the newspaper’s reporting about the illness of the king and by suggesting that he was poisoned by one of his many wives.

Malawi: Some journalists have been beaten up for reporting about the former president’s attempt to change the constitution and rule for another term. His political party organized vigilante groups of youths that assaulted journalists for covering events other than those of the ruling party. Those reporters who dared to write any articles against the ruling party were severely beaten, even in front of police, who did nothing to protect them. Journalists George Ntonya and Chikondi Phikiso were, in fact, beaten by police for attempting to take pictures of a scuffle between the police and a motorist at a police roadblock on October 18, 2003.

Similar attacks on the independent press have also been made in Namibia. In August 2003, President Sam Nujoma called The Namibian newspaper and its editor, Gwen Lister, “unprofessional and reactionary.” [See excerpts from a speech given by Lister on page 43.] And in May 2001, the Botswana government imposed an advertising ban on The Guardian and Midweek Sun, which were accused of being too critical of the country’s leaders. The intent of this ban was to demonstrate the government’s displeasure about “irresponsible reporting and exceeding of editorial freedom.” That nation’s High Court ruled later that year, however, that the ban violated the papers’ constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Along with monitoring issues involving press freedom, MISA is engaged in an intensive campaign for media law reform in the SADC region to ensure that a supportive legal environment is created for free and independent media. In 2000, the Promotion of Access to Information Act became law in South Africa, and this remains one of the region’s most important press developments. This act enables the media and ordinary citizens to learn information from the state as well as from private organizations and individuals when such information is considered necessary in the public or individual’s interest.

In 2002, there were positive developments in Zambia, including the enactment of two pieces of legislation, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) Amendment. However, the Zambian media and a coalition of nongovernmental organizations were not successful in securing passage of a Freedom of Information bill. And in 2003, an All Africa Editors’ Conference was held, and now a committee representing five African regions oversees a range of common and critical issues related to the success of independent media.

Many challenges remain for journalists working in this region as they try to do their j obs in places where democracy is emergent but still weak. Though some progress has been made, journalists working in independent media in Africa are now focused on finding approaches necessary to changing the oppositional climate in which many of them now must work while also strengthening their ability to report.

Luckson A. Chipare is regional director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa based in Windhoek, Namibia.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment