Leaders in Ethiopia and Rwanda were once hailed as political reformers. But according to Mohamed Keita, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Western priorities have led African democracies to narrow their free speech commitments. Mohamed speaks to Brooke about the frightening consequences when press freedoms drop off the agenda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Once African leaders like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame of Rwanda were hailed as political reformers and praised for their efforts to curb terrorism and reduce poverty. But Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the civil rights abuses of those leaders have been largely unremarked upon by western governments and media. It’s western cynicism about African democracy that has encouraged governments to drop press freedom from their agendas. And that’s left them pretty much unaccountable to anyone.
MOHAMED KEITA: Africa is the region of the world that has driven the largest number of journalists into exile, over 360 journalists, between 2001 and 2011. Most of them came from the Horn of Africa. In the case of Ethiopia, the government has passed a law that has virtually wiped out all civil society working on democratization or human rights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in the 1990s African leaders like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were hailed as reformers.
MOHAMED KEITA: There was tremendous renaissance across Africa following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nineties were an era of reform and democratization, liberalization on the press, the end of single-party rule. But many of the leaders from that era have grown to be authoritarian. You have donor countries spending a lot of money to build institutions that are supposed to defend human rights and press freedom, but it’s not enough to spend a lot of money building institutions or training journalists.
You also have to really be engaged at the political level to ensure that the governments do build truly democratic institutions, not government fronts, like in, in Ethiopia or Rwanda.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you suggest that these donor nations aren’t staying engaged that that, in fact, their priorities don’t really rate press freedom very highly.
MOHAMED KEITA: No, they don’t. Last November one of Sweden’s leading newspaper interviewed Sweden’s international development minister about two Swedish reporters who have been in prison in Ethiopia since last July. And the Swedish minister said that the government was raising these issues privately with the Ethiopian government. But, he said, at the same time Prime Minister Meles Zenawai of Ethiopia has been a champion in anti-poverty and development.
Western governments are no longer putting reform, human rights and democracy at the top of their agenda. It’s cynicism about African democracy. It is acceptable now to have elections full of irregularities. A few governments will issue statements criticizing such and such elections, but at the end of the day the reform agenda has fallen off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because these countries seem to be making strides towards –
MOHAMED KEITA: Development, yes. But even as they register this progress, there are questions about the extent of this progress, how the life of the ordinary person has improved or not improved. And, you know, even the World Bank admits that there is a huge gap between their GDP growth figures and the inflated GDP growth figures of the government. So who is there to really account for that gap? Without a free press, you have no accountability, not only for the millions that are given in international assistance, but you also have no reliable figures about the extent of the development.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does Zenawi justify the crackdown on journalists?
MOHAMED KEITA: At this point, these authoritarian leaders are becoming more and more assertive in justifying this oppression. They are openly rejecting Western liberal democratic values in favor of an authoritarian model taken after China.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of influence do you think is China having on media in Africa?
MOHAMED KEITA: Opening bureaus of the state-controlled news agency Xinhua currently has more bureaus in African than any of the Western news agencies. At the same time, since 2004 more than 200 African journalists have been flown to China for training in positive reporting, which also converges with the African authoritarian leaders’ promotion of what they call “developmental journalism,” so the whole idea that the media, instead of reporting on so-called divisive or sensational news, should focus on positive collective achievements and get the masses behind the state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Chinese company ZTE has apparently installed and financed a telecom network in Ethiopia. Does it have an impact on the content carried on those lines?
MOHAMED KEITA: Yeah, Ethiopia operates the most extensive Internet censorship infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is quite a paradox because Ethiopia’s telecom infrastructure is still very – poor compared to even neighboring Kenya or Somalia. Yet, they have this very sophisticated Internet censorship apparatus, and they block critical content. And when there is a humanitarian disaster, journalists are forced to wait until the government calls it a famine to actually call it a famine.
International journalists based in Ethiopia are facing the constant threat of expulsion, and obviously, the local journalists are facing much more persecution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does social media, either locally or internationally, have any impact?
MOHAMED KEITA: Some of the biggest stories in Africa today are broken by social media users on Twitter or Facebook. When a crisis breaks out in any given country, you will see international media trying to go on Twitter to find local users based in that area to get firsthand accounts or exclusive photos or images.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what about in the Horn of Africa?
MOHAMED KEITA: The progress is slower. In the case of Ethiopia, it was not until last September that the government finally allowed mobile phone service to come with Internet access, in other words, to have smart phone – not until last September. In Eritrea, that is still not allowed. In Somalia it’s much more open.
The telecom infrastructure in Somalia is actually quite amazing. Even though it’s a failed state, it’s quite a wired country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s assume we don’t think there’s any intrinsic value in free speech, what are the practical consequences of censorship in that region?
MOHAMED KEITA: When there is a famine and the government imposes censorship and forces the media to downplay extent of the famine, lives are lost, clearly, because there are international groups that want to assist and to also have access to those sensitive areas.
I just wanted to say [LAUGHS] a word about the ordinary journalist in Africa. If you see a photo on the front page of The New York Times from Somalia, think about the person that took that photo and the risk they went through to take that picture. In Somalia, they are very young. They’re all in their twenties. They are so brave. They live in a war zone. Somalia is the deadliest place for journalists in Africa. But they are really, truly our eyes on the ground, and without them, we really don’t have a clue about what’s happening in those countries.
And I also want to say that local journalists are truly the ones that most need support and assistance because they lack institutional support. Without them, our international reporters couldn’t operate on the ground. International journalists fly in and out. They have diplomatic assistance. When they’re arrested, immediately they are on CNN. But the local journalists who actually live in those countries, who speak the language, who have access to the best sources and understand the politics and the dynamics of the situation, they are without any protection. And we must recognize them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mohamed Keita, thank you very much.
MOHAMED KEITA: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mohamed Keita is the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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