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[Dehai-WN] NYTimes.com: Africa's Free Press Problem

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 17 Apr 2012 12:55:45 +0200

Africa's Free Press Problem


Published: April 17, 2012

AS Africa's economies grow, an insidious attack on press freedom is under
way. Independent African journalists covering the continent's development
are now frequently persecuted for critical reporting on the misuse of public
finances, corruption and the activities of foreign investors.

Why this disturbing trend? In the West, cynicism about African democracy has
led governments to narrow their development priorities to poverty reduction
and stability; individual liberties like press freedom have dropped off the
agenda, making it easier for authoritarian rulers to go after journalists
more aggressively. In the 1990s, leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and
Meles Zenawi of
hiopia/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> Ethiopia were praised by the West as
political and social reformers. Today, the West extols these men for
achieving growth and maintaining stability, which they do largely with a
nearly absolute grip over all national institutions and the press.

Then there's the influence of
ina/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> China, which surpassed the West as Africa's
largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, China has been deepening
technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of
critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist.

In January, Beijing issued a
<http://www.chinaxwcb.com/2012-01/10/content_236045.htm> white paper calling
for accelerated expansion of China's news media abroad and the deployment of
a press corps of 100,000 around the world, particularly in priority regions
like Africa. In the last few months alone, China established its first
<http://english.cntv.cn/program/cultureexpress/20120113/108482.shtml> TV
news hub in Kenya and a
t_444396.htm> print publication in South Africa. The state-run Xinhua news
agency already operates more than 20 bureaus in Africa. More than 200
African government <http://lr.china-embassy.org/eng/gyzg/a123/t517729.htm>
press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to
produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief,
<http://english.gov.cn/2007-10/22/content_783359.htm> Li Changchun, called
"truthful" coverage of development fueled by China's activities.

China and African governments tend to agree that the press should focus on
collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather
than report on divisive issues or so-called negative news.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ethiopia, which remains one of the
West's foremost recipients of development assistance and whose largest
trading partner and main source of foreign investment is China. The prisons
in Ethiopia, like those in China, are now filled with journalists and
dissidents, and critical Web sites are blocked.

This is particularly troubling in Ethiopia, a country where investigative
journalism once saved countless lives. In the 1980s, the tyrannical
president Mengistu Haile Mariam denied that a famine was happening in
Ethiopia, even as it deepened. The world did not move to assist millions of
starving Ethiopians until international journalists broke the dictator's
stranglehold on information.

Nearly three decades later, Ethiopia is still mired in a cycle of
humanitarian crises and conflicts. But today, journalists are denied
independent access to sensitive areas and risk up to 20 years in prison if
they report about opposition groups designated by the government as
terrorists. "We are not supposed to take pictures of obviously malnourished
kids," an Ethiopia-based reporter recently told me. "We are effectively
prevented from going to areas and health facilities where severely
malnourished kids are, or are being treated."

This silencing in turn frustrates the ability of aid groups to quickly
mobilize funds when help is needed. And with civil society, the political
opposition and the press severely restricted, there is hardly any domestic
scrutiny over how the government uses billions of dollars of international
assistance from Western governments.

Rwanda is another worrisome case. The volume of trade between Rwanda and
China increased <http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?i=14650&a=41980>
fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has
eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun
hp> filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad.

As powerful political and economic interests tied to China's investments
seek to stamp out independent reporting, a free African press is needed more
than ever, as a key institution of development, a consumer watchdog and a
way for the public to contextualize official statistics about joblessness,
inflation and other social and economic concerns. But support for the press,
in order to be effective, will have to mean more than just supporting
journalism training and publishing capacity; if such efforts are to succeed,
they must be integrated into a wider strategy of political and media

 <http://cpj.org/blog/author/mohamed-keita/> Mohamed Keita is the Africa
advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.



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