Human Rights
Press freedom deteriorated in 2001

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afrol News, 3 January - The situation of the press seriously deteriorated last year, on a worldwide basis, but also in Africa. In Africa, especially Zimbabwe and Eritrea noted a considerably more hostile press freedom environment.

According to 2001 statistics released by the French media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), almost all indicators on attacks on the press (journalists arrested, attacked, threatened or media censured) rose compared to the year 2000 on a worldwide basis. 

The number of journalists arrested (489 in 2001) rose by nearly 50 per cent, and the number of journalists attacked or threatened (716) by more than 40 per cent. More and more journalists have been imprisoned throughout the world. At present there are 110 behind bars. The number had dropped constantly since 1995 but climbed again sharply in 2001. Only the number of journalists killed remained stable at 31.

- In Africa and the Middle East no press professionals were killed in the context of their jobs, RSF reports. Asia was noted as the deadliest continent for journalists in 2001, with 14 journalists killed, 8 of them in Afghanistan.

Nearly no murders and assassinations of journalists in Africa were however solved, and impunity was outlined a major problem. In Burkina Faso, for example, more than three years after the assassination of Norbert Zongo, director of L'Indépendant, on December 13th, 1998, the investigation still has gone nowhere. The brother of the country's President, François Compaoré, is known to be deeply implicated in the incident.

2001 was the year when the positive trends of the previous five years were broken. This was especially true referring to imprisonment of journalists, also in Africa. One of the countries now holding most journalists in jail in the world is Eritrea (8 journalists imprisoned in 2001). Eritrea earlier had had a relatively relaxed press situation.

The two other African countries where journalists were imprisoned at large numbers were Congo Kinshasa (DRC) and Zimbabwe. Most of these were however freed quickly. In Congo again this year a journalist was flogged by his jailers, thus continuing decades of ill-treatment of the intimidated press. 

Zimbabwe even noted an increase in press intimidation. Here, also "veterans" of the war for independence committed many attacks on reporters of the independent press. These "war veterans" largely operate under impunity, being supporters of the government. 

Forcing journalists into exile is another kind of threat used by some governments, RSF reported. Numerous journalist, fearing reprisals, have thus fled Ethiopia, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Censorship increasing
Worldwide, over one press medium was censured every day in 2001. While censorship happens on all continents, it was most pervasive on African soil, according to RSF's statistics.

In Eritrea in September, the government ordered the suspension of all independent press media, thus making it one of the rare countries in the world without a privately owned press. On the very same day at least eight journalists were arrested and taken to a police station in the capital. Others disappeared or fled the country. The director of public-sector television went on the air to explain that "the independent media endangered the country's unity".

In Morocco no fewer than nine newspapers, including seven foreign ones, were censured for dealing with topics such as the Western Sahara, corruption or for having criticised the king. The Spanish and French media especially are kept under close surveillance by the Moroccan authorities.

In Tunisia there is no censorship as such simply because there is no independent press. On the other hand the few journalists who try to spread news on the Internet or work for the international press are harassed. Their phone lines are systematically blocked, tapped or sometimes simply cut. Internet access is also tightly controlled.

The situation is parallel in Equatorial Guinea, where all press organs, the Internet and other types of communication are under tight government control. The situation in 2001 even deteriorated as the government succeeded in stopping the broadcasting of the Spanish exterior radio to the country, thus cutting off the last independent news source to its citizens. 

Togo also experienced continued draconian censorship by the government. In Togo, where communication is somewhat freer than in Equatorial Guinea, intimidation and arrests were systematically used by the government to curtail the remnants of a free press. Initial trends to release jailed journalists turned by the closure of the year.

In Namibia, where the press enjoys liberty, censorship took a more subtle form. Here, the government adopted economic sanctions against critical media. Media watchdogs were alarmed by the growing government hostility towards the free media in one of the few countries in Africa where the press has enjoyed full freedom.

Also foreign press correspondents were under tighter surveillance by numerous heads of state or governments. In Zimbabwe three foreign correspondents were expelled from the country. The government was "using all possible means to get a law passed obliging the international press media to employ only journalists of Zimbabwean nationality."

Sources: Based on RSF, MISA and afrol archives

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