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Press under pressure: African journalism amid coups, crackdowns and conflict

The reduced press freedom in several Sub-Saharan Africa countries, as outlined in the 2023 World Press Freedom Rankings, highlights the growing dangers for journalists operating in countries such as Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia, among others. Richard Gardiner investigates the drivers of the growing threats to journalist safety and discusses some of the emerging hotspots in the region.

Amid escalating political instability and growing governmental suppression in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the operating environment for journalists has become increasingly challenging. The spread of coups in the Sahel, diminished press freedom in historically vibrant democracies, and the difficulty in accurately reporting domestic conflicts are key drivers of these evolving dynamics within the continent. New hotspots for violence towards journalists have also emerged, while in historically challenging jurisdictions, such as Cameroon and Zimbabwe, the operating conditions have further deteriorated. With the intensifying governmental constraints in these countries, journalists now face a myriad of threats, including physical attacks by armed groups and government forces, intimidation, and arbitrary detention by authorities.

1. Coups

Coups in the Sahel, including Mali and Burkina Faso, have intensified the already hostile environment for journalists. Islamist insurgencies throughout the region had previously heightened the risk of physical attacks or kidnappings of journalists in militancy-affected areas. However, the recent coups have introduced further complications. The juntas, having seized control of state institutions, including media regulators, exhibit growing hostility towards independent media organisations. Foreign journalists, particularly those associated with French publications, face increasing difficulties in accessing these jurisdictions. And those who do manage to enter risk arbitrary detention and deportation. For instance, in February 2022, a French journalist working for Jeune Afrique was arrested and subsequently deported from the country for allegedly having incorrect documentation. Local journalists working for foreign publications also face growing intimidation and threats from the military regimes if they deviate from the government narrative. Six years on from Zimbabwe's 2017 palace coup, there has been little improvement in the operating environment for journalists.

2. Crackdowns

The escalating threat to journalists is not confined to countries with newly established military regimes. Democracies previously synonymous with press freedom, like Senegal, have also seen crackdowns on journalism. The country, once considered a beacon of press freedom in the region, fell 31 places in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index from 73rd out of 180 countries in 2022 to 104th in 2023. This trend, driven by increased attacks and arrests of journalists, is likely to continue, particularly amid increasing instability ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. The persistent popularity of the now-dissolved opposition party of Ousmane Sonko, the Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité (PASTEF), the violent crackdown on opposition demonstrations, and the related press coverage of the actions of security forces have significantly contributed to increased government hostility towards journalists throughout the country.

And, despite some improvement in the past year and a better ranking on the index, similar barriers to press freedoms persist in Lesotho. Here, self-censorship is pervasive and many political commentators have relocated to South Africa amid fears of attack in their home country. That said, South Africa too could face growing pressures on press freedom in the lead up the country's 2024 elections as political tensions give rise to smear campaigns targeting publications critical of the ruling African National Congress and other political parties.

3. Conflict

Active conflict zones inherently pose dangers for journalists. However, in countries like Cameroon and Ethiopia, the governments' increasingly hardline response to critical reporting of internal conflicts have created additional obstacles for the press. These dynamics have contributed to the continued decline in their World Press Freedom Index rankings between 2022 and 2023, with Ethiopia falling 16 places from 114th to 130th, while Cameroon dropped 20 places from 118th to 138th.

After initial optimism that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would open up the media landscape in Ethiopia, such hopes faded with the onset of the Tigray Civil War. In 2022, 29 local journalists were detained on charges of “collaborating with the enemy” and allegedly disclosing military secrets. Foreign journalists have also been targeted, with British journalist Tom Gardner expelled from the country in 2022 for his coverage of the Tigray conflict. While hostilities associated with the Tigray war have subsided since the signing of a peace deal in November 2022, media coverage of the growing unrest in the Amhara region over the government’s decision to dissolve a regional special forces unit in April 2023 has led to further arrests and the intimidation of journalists.

Similarly, in Cameroon, five journalists are currently serving prison sentences on anti-state charges for their reporting on the conflict involving Anglophone separatists in the country’s North-West and South-West Regions. In addition to the threat of being killed by separatists - there has already been one such death of a journalist in 2023 - media workers face the threat of arbitrary detention and intimidation by Cameroonian armed forces and authorities for covering stories that are perceived as negatively reflecting the government’s actions.

Looking ahead

Amid sustained and growing political instability in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, violence towards journalists is likely to continue into 2024. The potential for further coups in West and Central Africa, elections in countries such as Senegal, and persistent conflicts and unrest that draw critical coverage of governments show no signs of dissipating. These dynamics in hostile operating environments underscore the challenges of delivering accurate, independent reporting, while remaining within the ever-shrinking confines of the law.

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