Shooting the Messenger: Journalists Brave Danger in Africa

On this turbulent continent, Africa's reporters find low official tolerance for criticism, and are increasingly being targeted for murder by repressive regimes, others are killed in crossfire

THE murder earlier last month of Angola's leading independent journalist, Ricardo de Mello, was the latest disturbing development on a continent still struggling to implement freedom of expression.

De Mello, who was the editor of the ImparcialFax newsletter, and had received numerous anonymous death threats before being shot, had angered various military and government officials with his highly critical reporting and exposes into alleged corruption. Diplomats believe the person who ordered his killing was a disgruntled official, whose identity is unlikely to come to public light.

``He was the victim of the law of silence,'' says colleague Aguiar dos Santos, who like several others, had received telephoned death threats akin to de Mello's. They said they feared for their lives and were considering leaving the country for a while.

It is not just independent journalists who are targeted in Angola. The editor of the state-run daily Jornal de Angola, Vitor Silva, a member of the ruling MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), was sacked last year after the newspaper published a cartoon poking fun at the government.

The situation in Angola, where 10 journalists have been killed since civil war resumed in 1992, mirrors that of many African countries. Tolerance for criticism is scant and intimidation common for those who dig too deeply. Poverty and a breakdown of law and order breed corruption, and with it fears of exposure. Armed conflicts such as in Angola do not foster free expression. Some democratizing countries, such as Namibia, Zambia, South Africa, and Mozambique, have made strides - but the process is often slow.

``Africa is not homogeneous. You have some absolutely appalling violations in some countries, such as Zaire. But there are other countries trying to democratize that are on a learning curve,'' said Jennifer Pogrund, program coordinator for Africa of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Locals must face the music

It is dangerous enough for foreign correspondents, as Tina Susman of the Associated Press and Andrew Hill of Reuters know from operating in Somalia. Ms. Susman was kidnapped for three weeks by gunmen last year. Mr. Hill narrowly escaped being murdered in 1992 by an angry crowd - unlike four other colleagues who were killed.

For local journalists, however, added dangers abound, such as incurring the wrath of officials who feel betrayed. ``Unlike foreign correspondents, we can not just get on a plane and leave when the going gets tough,'' a Mozambican journalist says. ``We have to face the consequences of what we write.''

Most of the deaths of journalists worldwide last year were in Africa. The bulk were from Algeria, where Islamic fundamentalists have assassinated 43 journalists since 1993; and Rwanda, where 48 died, caught in the middle of the war.

Last year was a worrisome one for free expression elsewhere on the continent. At least one Zimbabwean newspaper closed down last year in an increasingly tense political climate, while two journalists were murdered in Egypt.

The opposition press in Zaire was repressed, with veiled threats by the government to close newspapers if it did not like what was published.

Editors and publishers of Uganda's independent newspapers condemned attempts by the government to introduce what they said were ``draconian'' measures to muzzle the press.

Death threats

Three Swazi journalists working for the state-controlled Swazi Observer received anonymous death threats after publishing opposition criticisms of the prime minister's plans to buy a fleet of luxury cars.

``Authorities in Africa tend to be repressive. There is so much preoccupation with maintaining power, and anyone who is perceived to be against them suffers,'' says one Zimbabwean journalist. He did not want to be named - like many reporters from other African countries who spoke about the harassment they faced on the job.

Even in South Africa, where an emerging democracy has replaced apartheid, the new Defense Minister Joe Modise recently tried to bar a newspaper from gaining access to sensitive defense information.

For the most part, however, journalists killed - including two photographers caught in township cross- fire - have been accidental victims of political violence.

``I think it [political repression of journalists] is past in South Africa,'' says Greg Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who was shot last year while caught in firing between the National Peacekeeping Force and hostel dwellers. ``Here we are not targeted. It's generally just crime or cross-fire.''

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