Feisty press under fire in Africa

A decade of greater media freedom has some governments passing tougher laws.

Ethiopian journalist Araya Tesfa Mariam knows in his bones how painful it can be to tell the truth - and help build democracy - in Africa.

On a dark night in October, the threats he'd been getting after writing articles about the inner workings of Ethiopia's government materialized. Three men, who he says were federal police officers, beat him with an iron rod and tossed him over a bridge into a ravine. After landing about 25 feet below, he heard one say, "He's dead. Let's go."

Despite serious injuries, Mr. Mariam survived. In just a week, he was back writing for his newspaper.

His case, and many others like it, highlights Africa's growing pains as it inches toward wider freedoms for its people and institutions. Over the past decade, African journalists have become feistier, more willing to criticize their governments, even more inflammatory. But insecure governments are becoming less tolerant of such criticism. And many are striking back.

"The liberation of the media is one of the most significant developments in Africa in the past decade," says Raymond Louw, longtime editor and publisher of Southern Africa Report, a publication based in South Africa. But now, he says, "governments are really putting the screws on."

How much, and how long, governments can squelch press freedom depends on everything from the persistence of people like Mariam to whether outside powers like the United States will arm-twist governments into backing off, observers say.

Some dramatic cases of press harassment include:

• On Oct. 21, a French journalist in Ivory Coast was killed in broad daylight, reportedly by a policeman.

• Zimbabwe's increasingly threatened regime regularly arrests, intimidates, and beats up journalists. Officials have shut down the country's only independent paper and jailed several of its board members.

• Eritrea has no independent papers. The country is reportedly tied with Nepal for having more journalists in prison than any other country in the world.

Even governments in some of Africa's solid democracies are now trying to control the increasingly boisterous press. Botswana, often cited as a democratic model, is considering more government control of the press. And Namibia's President Sam Nujoma has taken personal control of the state broadcasting service and has banned government advertising in The Namibian, a paper that regularly jabs him.

All this follows a decade of expanding democracy and press freedom across Africa. In 1991, for instance, Ethiopia's new leader, Meles Zenawi, berated the media for being too subservient under the former imperial regime. Soon press freedom was enshrined in the constitution, and the government's press-censorship department was scrapped. This led to a flowering of independent newspapers.

But now comes the beating of Mariam. After writing articles about a split in the ruling party and about political prisoners in Ethiopian jails, he says he got calls from government agents. First, they offered to pay him twice or three times his monthly salary of about $50, if he'd keep quiet. Then they began threatening him.

The government hasn't investigated the case, because Mariam "has to go to the police" and file a complaint, says Bereket Simon, Ethiopia's Minister of Information. He suspects that Mariam's claims, which various officials either deny or say were done by rogue officers, are fueled by an antigovernment political agenda.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the government suspended the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association for failing to disclose financial statements, as required by law. And a controversial new press law would, among other things:

• require newspapers to register every employee, from reporter to street hawker;

• ban foreign assistance, even though government-controlled media often get such outside help; and

• make publishers disclose the exact hour their paper will be submitted to presses for printing.

Like many African leaders, Mr. Simon, a former rebel fighter, argues that Ethiopia's fragile democracy can't yet handle total press freedom.

"In countries like Ethiopia, the press needs to be more responsible" than in the US, which has a mature democracy, he says. Tensions between Ethiopia's 70 or more ethnic groups, for instance, could be inflamed by wild press comments. So it's the government's job to help create a "responsible" media, he says.

Indeed, Ethiopia's - and Africa's - press isn't always entirely professional.

"We're terrible," says Tamrat Giorgis, managing editor of Fortune, one of Ethiopia's more respected papers. Reporters can be "a group of guys sitting around chewing khat" - a mild hallucinogenic - "and writing opinions," he says.

But the quality of the media isn't the point, argues Amare Aregawi, editor-in-chief of The Reporter, another respected publication here. "We're not talking about freedom for just the good reporters," he says. "We're talking about the right to be wrong. It's freedom for everyone."

One force that can help guarantee this freedom, he adds, is the US. But America is in a quandary in Ethiopia and elsewhere around the world. Here in the Horn of Africa, the US is engaged in major efforts to fight terrorism. And Ethiopia - like Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere - has pledged to help. But that limits America's willingness to publicly rebuke such governments for antidemocratic moves.

"The US is going to have to be careful about balancing between fighting terrorism and promoting democracy," Mr. Aregawi observes. "Otherwise tyrants and dictators will prosper in the name of terrorism."

Indeed, on a balmy night here, Mariam and his younger brother, Yohannes, sit in a restaurant booth, checking over their shoulders for signs of being watched. Yohannes, who serves as Mariam's interpreter, wonders if Ethiopians will ever be fully able to express themselves.

"When will we be like America?" he asks. "Not in wealth. Not in technology. But in freedom?"

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