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Africa sees hike in detentions, arrests of journalists

December 21, 2021

Press freedom in Africa has suffered in 2021 due to growing authoritarianism and insecurity, especially in East Africa — the region most hostile to journalists on the continent.

Somali journalists wear body armor and helmets
Journalists in Somalia, one of the world's most dangerous places for the profession, often wear body armor and helmetsImage: Mohamed Dahir/AFP/Getty Images

Journalists in many parts of Africa are working in increasingly difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Political instability, such as the 2021 coups in Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Chad, has lead to widespread crackdowns on media workers.

Journalists are also being targeted by both governments and armed groups seeking to control the flow of information in regions wracked by violence and conflict, such as Cameroon, the Sahel, Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia.

In its roundup of abuses against journalists released every December, Reporters Without Borders, commonly referred to by its French acronym RSF, has sounded the alarm over the growing number of journalists being detained worldwide.

Africa is no exception, with more than 100 journalists arbitrarily arrested and 26 detained from January 1 to December 1, the RSF report found.

Dangers of reporting in East Africa

East Africa is the region most hostile to media freedom on the continent, said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk.

Eritrea, where President Isaias Afwerki banned all independent media back in 2001, and Djibouti have no media freedom, making them news and information deserts.

In 2021, Eritrea even beat North Korea to take the last place worldwide in RSF's Press Freedom Index.

The three African countries which detained the most journalists in 2021, namely Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rwanda, are also all in East Africa.

Free speech concerns in Rwanda

Media freedom backslides in Ethiopia

Ethiopia, in particular, has been heavily criticized by rights organizations and the United Nations in the last month for clamping down on press freedom during the ongoing war between federal forces and Tigray and Oromo fighters.

Last week, three journalists were charged with "promoting terrorism" after interviewing members of the Oromo Liberation Army, designated a terrorist group by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

A government decree, introduced in November, bars people from using media platforms to support terrorists and also bans the distribution of information about military movements unless they are published by the government.

"The only thing reporters are able to report are the official figures and the official narratives of the government," Froger, from Reporter Without Borders, told DW.

"If they go to the other side of the battlefield, they face arrest, or deportation if they're foreign journalists, so no independent journalism is allowed in relation to the civil war."

Communication blackouts in the northern Tigray region and government restrictions on reporters' movements are further curbs to Ethiopia's press freedom, which had "greatly deteriorated" in the past year, Froger said.

 A young girl sits on sacks of wheat after the World Food Programme distributed food in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia
Communications blackouts and restrictions on reporters' movements have made reporting difficult in EthiopiaImage: Claire Nevill/WFP via AP/picture alliance

Cost of reporting in Somalia

East Africa also has the ignominious honor of being home to the most dangerous country for media workers in all of Africa — namely Somalia.

Two journalists have been killed there so far this year, bringing the number of reporters killed in the country since 2010 to more than 50.

Somalia is also the worst in the world for solving the killings of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2021 Global Impunity Index.

In the most recent killing, journalist Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled, the director of the government-owned Radio Mogadishu, died when a suicide bomber exploded in front of his car in Mogadishu in November.

The al-Shabab militant group took responsibility for the assassination, saying they had been "hunting" him for a long time.

Security officers patrol on the site of a car-bomb attack in Mogadishu
Attacks like this make Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalistsImage: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

In addition, more than 30 journalists have been arrested or attacked this year, reports the National Union of Somali Journalists.

"Harassment of journalists has become institutionalized in this country," said Omar Faruk Osman, the union's secretary general.

As well as the threat of violence from Islamist groups, media workers face increasing legal threats from authorities "such as arbitrary arrest or being taken to court ... on trumped up charges," he told DW by phone from Mogadishu.

Somalia is currently holding much-delayed elections and this has triggered an upsurge of hostility toward media workers, said Osman, adding that the situation was "very worrisome."

Ghana's downward trend

Even some African countries with strong media freedoms seem to be backsliding.

Prominent Ghanaian journalist Manasseh Azure Awuni , who heads the nonprofit investigative journalism project The Fourth Estate, feels the media freedom environment in his country has become more "oppressive" since President Nana Akufo-Addo was elected in 2016.

Ghana has slipped down the Press Freedom Index from 22nd in 2015 to 30th this year, with increasing reports of torture and abuse of journalists at the hands of security agencies.

Officials also seem reluctant to condemn or prosecute those who threaten or attack media workers, Awuni told DW, adding to the climate of fear for reporters. 

In 2019, investigative reporter Ahmed Hussein-Suale was shot dead in the capital, Accra, just months after a member of parliament called on his supporters to attack the reporter.

"Ghana is basking in past glory," Awuni told DW in a phone interview from Accra. "Perhaps because media freedom on the continent is so bad that even though the situation in Ghana isn't good enough, we still celebrate it."

A old man listens to his radio
A free press is necessary to hold authorities and individuals in power to accountImage: AP

Speaking out regardless

But the situation isn't stopping some journalists from continuing to uncover corruption and fight for justice on the continent.

Awuni has had to leave Ghana twice in recent years because of death threats against him.

"There's a lot of injustice ongoing, there's a lot of corruption happening, and so somebody has to do it," he said. "The option is not to fold our arms and allow the bad ones to take over and continue to do the things they have been doing."

In Somalia, DW reporter Mohamed Odowa files reports on topics such as armed conflicts, organized crime or politically motivated violence from across the country.

"I know Somalia is a hostile reporting environment," he said from the capital, Mogadishu. "But many veteran journalists like me opt to be courageous so that we can share the developments in our country with our citizens and with outside audiences."

This article originally stated that Ghanaian journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale was shot in broad daylight. This is incorrect: he was killed at night. We have corrected the article and apologize for the mistake. 

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl

Kate Hairsine Senior Editor & Reporter
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