Journalism in Africa is a ticket to hell

By Sherry Ricchiardi -That’s what powerful reporting can mean for Africa’s embattled journalists, who face harsh reprisals from government and rebel factions in many of the continent’s countries.

In Zimbabwe, Ray Choto wrote the kinds of stories about political upheaval that in the United States might have made him a contender for an Investigative Reporters & Editors award.

Instead, his hard-hitting exposes for a Sunday weekly won him a trip early this year to a torture chamber, where he was stripped and beaten, his head held underwater until he was on the brink of death.

In a nearby room, his editor, Mark Chavunduka, lay naked in a blood-spattered cell, writhing in pain as electrical wires were attached to his genitals. Their “crime” was twofold: publication of a story about a failed military coup, which the government denied, and a refusal to name their sources. In Africa, doing serious journalism can be a ticket to hell.

Yet a quiet group of heroes, working in one of the world’s most lethal regions for the media, continues to uncover the kind of information that would make the likes of Bob Woodward or Christiane Amanpour proud.

The details of their torment–brutal interrogations, isolation in filthy cells, medieval torture, even death–seem more suited to a Stephen King novel than to the everyday lives of the working press.

Often, the journalists are trapped between brutal rebel armies and repressive governments, each camp viewing them as the enemy because of their probing into such areas as official corruption, drug trafficking and atrocities against civilians committed during wildfire wars that have swept the region. For some of these media practitioners, coping with an undercurrent of psychological terror has become as routine as meeting deadline. They know that by delving into coup plotting in Zimbabwe or gun running in Congo, they can wind up strapped to a table at the mercy of a sadist.

It is the price they pay for covering what one African scholar calls “warlord politics.” In January, a trail was fresh with journalists’ blood in Sierra Leone. Seven were murdered after guerrilla fighters from the Revolutionary United Front stormed Freetown, the capital of the country.

Four others remain missing. A survivor of the attacks, Mustapha Sessay of the Standard Times newspaper, was slashed by a machete and had his right eye gouged out. Myles Tierney, an American producer working for Associated Press Television News, was killed in the same country when his vehicle was hit by automatic weapon fire. Ian Stewart, AP bureau chief in West Africa, was shot in the head but survived. In February, pro-government forces murdered the news editor of the newspaper African Champion after they accused him of being a rebel collaborator, a charge he denied. “It was a campaign of terror. It doesn’t get much worse than this,” says Kakuna Kerina, Africa program director for the International League for Human Rights. “We have received reports that the rebels entered Freetown with a list of journalists to be eliminated.” This spring, the Committee to Protect Journalists came to the rescue of four journalists who had been threatened and harassed for their work. The group brought the journalists to Ghana, Canada and the United States. In June, AJR interviewed scores of editors and reporters on the frontlines of the war against the press in African “hot zones,” where journalists refer to themselves as “an endangered species.” They were asked why they continue to place personal safety at risk to cover news on the poverty- and war-scarred continent, and how they cope with the constant threat of reprisal, sometimes at the hands of undisciplined rebel armies known to commit grotesque atrocities. Who comes to their aid when they are held without charges in overcrowded prisons rife with scurvy, tuberculosis and malaria? Beyond the danger, the journalists face formidable challenges. Many of them lack formal training, are poorly equipped and earn meager salaries. In some places, copy is pounded out on manual typewriters or handwritten and carried to a typist. At smaller publications, a rented computer or a laptop is considered a luxury. Due to the high illiteracy rates, circulation tends to be low and advertising revenue scarce for weeklies and dailies. Independent TV and radio stations often are saddled with high licensing fees and state taxes. During the worst of times, journalists have been known to work without pay or invest scant savings to keep independent media afloat.Yet, the mood was feisty and upbeat among the 60 media …

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