African journalists risk jail for the truth

In Africa, Egypt remains the worst offender when it comes to jailing journalists - and has topped the list for three years.

This is according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2019 prison census report released on December 11.

CPJ is an American based non-profit organisation which advocates for press freedom and the human rights of journalists. The organisation’s annual census counts those imprisoned at midnight on December 1 each year and does not include journalists who have been imprisoned and released throughout the year.

Globally, Egypt is in third position with Saudi Arabia on the prison census. Both countries have 26 imprisoned journalists. In first place is China with 48 incarcerated journalists while in close second is Turkey which has 47 journalists in jail.

The report states that the majority of journalists imprisoned worldwide face anti-state charges.

“Injustices happen when people don’t know what is going on,” said CPJ’s Sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo. She added that the prison census is a good advocacy tool and allows governments to introspect on how they treat journalists.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, over a third of the 39 imprisoned journalists are Eritrean. Those Eritrean journalists have been incarcerated since 2001, following the country’s ban on independent media in 2001.

“Getting information on these journalists has been hard but even when we are uncertain of the status of an imprisoned journalist, they remain on the census to hold the government accountable,” Mumo said.

Reporters Without Borders, an organisation which advocates for the freedom of information, ranks Eritrea 170/180 on their 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

President Isaias Afwerki has been in power since 1993 and according to a Human Rights Watch 2019 world report, “Anyone who questions Isaias’ rule [is] jailed infinitely without trial, often incommunicado.”

“Eritrea has a direct correlation between censorship and imprisonment. One can look at these high numbers and come to the conclusion that it is the worst African imprisoner,” Mumo said.

However, she said people should guard against thinking that a country’s absence on the census equals a free press.

“Uganda had many journalists who were imprisoned throughout the year for covering issues such as protests. However, they were for brief periods in time and therefore do not appear on the census.

“Zambian journalist Derrick Sinjela was sentenced to 18 months in prison [in December 2018] for contempt of court and had he not been released this past November, he too would have been part of the census,” Mumo said.

Mumo added that African courts have been used to gag journalists through various laws purportedly against issues such as cybercrime and hate speech.

CPJ’s prison census highlighted that 30 journalists were imprisoned worldwide for “false news” charges, a two-figure jump from 2018’s statistics. CPJ also highlighted that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi applies his anti-cybercrime law “most prolifically”.

Nigeria is described as “backsliding” in terms of freedom of expression by CPJ’s prison census report. The country is considering the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019 which would allow the government to shut down the internet for those who are deemed as a public safety as well as the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill to fight what they consider as hate speech.

“What is hate speech? I always say tyranny is founded on ambiguous law which is left to the courts interpret however they please. The courts aren’t always for the people so the treatment will not be fair,” said Nigerian freelance journalist Orji Sunday.

Sunday, who is based in Lagos, said he thinks twice before reporting on certain issues or reporting from certain places for his “own safety”.

Publisher Agba Jalingo is highlighted as the only Nigerian on CPJ’s prison census.

“Many journalists are imprisoned for purely doing their work. Work which we do for citizens,” Sunday said.

Mumo said citizens can help break the oppression of journalists by speaking out on social media or on the ballot paper.

“When we champion for a journalist, it is for a bigger conversation in society as it allows us to promote a functioning democracy,” Mumo said.

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