The noise of governance and politics is endless: voices boom through microphones making declarations, speakers blare with upbeat music to gather voters, TVs buzz with interviews of promises, and social media timelines whirr with citizens’ opinions. 

There are, however, those whose job it is to listen beyond the noise. Those whose ears are consistently on the ground. Those who are trained to hear past the spin and rhetoric. Those whose work it is to hold the people with most power accountable for their words and their actions. These people are journalists and they are increasingly under threat on the African continent. 

On Jan. 24, 2024, the Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors released an open letter that called on countries in Africa and around the world to pay attention to ongoing corruption by “kleptocrats'' across the continent, and how this corruption has led to threats, imprisonment, and violence against media workers who seek to expose it. This ultimately leads to an environment where it is difficult, even life-threatening, to do the work of a journalist and results in a suppression of press freedom. 

In this letter, the network asks: “How will migration away from Africa subside, when kleptocrat rulers benefit from it through ever higher passport fees and (own) involvement in human traffic agencies? How can climate change and deforestation be halted when international funding meant to address these problems disappears into individuals’ pockets? Europe has expressed concern about African military coups, but does it really expect desperate citizens to continue to submit to the rule of thieving and incompetent postcolonial regimes?”

The letter also alleges that Africa’s political leaders contribute to misinformation by endorsing “fake news,” all the while targeting and hunting down credible journalists. 

“[Corrupt political officials] use violence to intimidate us, deny us access to information, and refuse to even answer the phone when we raise questions,” the letter notes.

Let’s explore the matter together. 

What Is Happening to Journalists in Africa? 

African journalists are being targeted, threatened, and attacked for doing their jobs. In 2022, roughly 60 African journalists were assaulted, imprisoned, abducted, or exiled. In 2023, the Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reported that at least 67 African journalists were imprisoned, with the Daily Maverick reporting that no fewer than 547 journalists started 2024 in prison. Overwhelmingly the reason for targeting journalists on the continent has been singular: to stop them from exposing corrupt behavior in governmental regimes.

Reporters and media workers on the African continent are seen as a threat to the state, as Louis Thomasi, Africa Director for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) told Global Citizen: “Journalists who expose corruption are the main targets of governments and other individuals that are very close to governments, or people who have too much influence in society.” 

He continued: “Corruption is the major cancer, corruption is the major sickness of governments in Africa. There are countries where the scale of corruption is unimaginable, and journalists who will try to expose such forms of corruption are targeted.” 

“We must also be bold to add that journalists who expose gross violations of human rights are also targeted, especially in repressive regimes,” he added. 

Every year, CIVICUS, a global civic space organization, releases the “People Power Under Attack” report, which looks at where in the world civic spaces are shrinking, and what is causing their obstruction. For 2023, the report recognized the detention of journalists as the biggest violation of civic space in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

“This is the fourth year in a row that the detention of journalists has featured in the top three civic space violations in Africa South of the Sahara,” David Kode, Campaigns and Advocacy Lead at CIVICUS told Global Citizen. 

“Across the continent, journalists continue to be summoned by judicial authorities and security forces for questioning as a tactic to discourage and intimidate them. Others are subjected to death threats and cyber bullying,” he added. 

While the detainment of journalists in Africa is at the number one spot in the civic space report, it also lists excessive force and attacks on journalists as major obstructions to civic spaces in Africa. At their worst, these points have resulted in the deaths of journalists across the continent. 

In 2023, Africa saw the deaths of Cameroon’s Anye Nde Nsoh and Martinez Zogo, Lesotho’s Ralikonelo Joki, Mozambique’s João Chamusse, Nigeria’s Hilary Nosa Odia, Somalia’s Abdifatah Moallim Nur, Sudan’s Halima Idris, and Rwanda’s John William Ntwali. Most of these reporters worked to enlighten the public about ongoing human rights violations or corrupt regimes in their regions. 

This list doesn’t even include the large number of journalists who are targeted and threatened every day by powerful members of society for doing their jobs. 

Why Does This Concern Global Citizens? 

Before diving into why the targeting of journalists is terrible for society, it has to be said that corruption hinders countries’ growth and development and contributes to the cycle of poverty. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that corruption can have a direct impact on income inequality and levels of poverty in a country. The research states that high levels of corruption increase financial inequalities and poverty in a country through reducing “economic growth, the progressivity of the tax system, the level and effectiveness of social spending, and the formation of human capital.” 

The report adds that “corruption also increases income inequality and poverty by perpetuating an unequal distribution of asset ownership and unequal access to education.” 

In short, corruption drives inequity, and inequity drives poverty. 

It disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful few, and in Africa that tends to mean the government, or liaisons of the government. Journalists are depended upon to share access to information that affects the public, this includes corruption. However, they face danger when doing the work of trying to alert citizens to the reasons behind ongoing or increasing poverty and inequality in their countries. 

Global Citizens should be concerned because when the voices exposing corruption are silenced, that corruption can continue without consequences, directly impacting not only our pockets, but our countries’ ability to grow, develop, and reduce poverty. 

What About Elections? 

It has been reported over and over again that 2024 is a big election year for the entire globe, and there are critical elections set to take place across the African continent with 17 of 54 countries heading to the polls. Election periods are of particular concern as government officials and those connected to them will be in journalists’ eyeline, particularly if these officials are perpetrators of corruption and human rights violations. This could, in turn, put journalists who are critical of such candidates into the firing line. 

“It is likely that governments in countries where civic space is repressed will restrict media rights and increase attacks on journalists before, during, and after the elections,” Kode explained. “We might also see restrictions on internet freedoms as some of these states will aim to control the flow of information.” 

This year we’ve already seen, in Senegal, how the election period can be tumultuous for journalists. Reporters covering the delayed elections in the country were faced with harassment and physical attacks from authorities. 

Journalist for the online platform, Seneweb, Absa Hane, told Amnesty International that she was beaten for her attempt at covering election protests. 

“I was slapped and beaten on the head and neck violently in the car,” she said. “Despite showing them my press card and telling them that I had a chronic illness, they continued. I fainted and only regained consciousness afterwards inside our press car. I was taken to the hospital and released at around 10pm.” 

The CPJ reported that at least 25 journalists in the country were targeted and attacked by authorities. Senegal has also implemented internet shutdowns and stripped a news broadcaster of their license to report. The country is not alone in its tactics, and both Kode and Thomasi predict that things could escalate across the continent, with the latter calling election periods the most “difficult trials for journalists right now.” 

Is There Justice for Targeted Journalists? 

Justice for targeted and killed journalists on the African continent is rare to observe. 

“We have calculated that out of every 10 killings, only one will probably rake the coals,” explained the IFJ’s Thomasi. “Even [with that one] there is so much bottlenecking at the national level to the extent that some of these cases do not actually continue.” 

He added: “Trying the perpetrators of journalists is difficult, mainly because, most of these killings the state is involved, that is a fact.”  

There are entities that work towards seeking this justice, including the IFJ, CPJ, CIVICUS, and Amnesty International. It is, however, as Thomasi notes, often an uphill battle that results in more frustration than success. 

So, Who Holds Perpetrators Accountable? 

This is perhaps the most essential question to be asking — who holds governments accountable when the people whose job it is to do so, are threatened, attacked, behind bars, or killed?

“I think the accountability comes from the public,” Genevieve Quintal, Amnesty International South Africa’s Media Officer explained. “I often say that as a citizen, based on the country you live in, you can judge your own freedom based on media freedom.” 

She told Global Citizen: "If you don’t see what’s happening around you, if you don’t have access to information, if you’re not able to freely express yourself, then do you actually know what’s happening? How free are you?”

“Credible journalism, credible information is so important when it comes to measuring your own freedom, and so people should be protecting the rights of journalists and their own rights to access information to know what’s happening around them,” she said. 

What Can Be Done? 

First, you can support reporters by reading up on and staying alert about corruption and human rights violation cases in your country or region. You can also stay informed through the CPJ or the IFJ (who monitor the targeting of journalists) about attacks on journalists and media workers worldwide, and use your own platform to raise awareness on the matter. 

The IFJ has also drafted a UN Convention for the protection of journalists and is calling for its adoption. You can give it a read and help to call on local governments, agencies, and organizations to support it.  

The targeting of journalists is a direct threat to societal autonomy, individual freedom, and the end of extreme poverty. Actions need to be taken to end the injustice. As Tabani Moyo, Regional Director for the Media Institute of Southern Africa said in a statement: “Journalists hold up a mirror to society. Targeting them simply for doing their work sends a wrong message that states are not prepared to uphold their human rights obligations and to be held accountable.”

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