Renowned economist William Easterly has spoken out this week in support of independent Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda. In his excellent new blog Aid Watch, Easterly called Mwenda courageous and said he (Mwenda) was finally getting well-deserved recognition. Easterly said the editor of Uganda’s The Independent was a frequent critic of the corruption and poor results of African aid agencies. He also made a broader point about the quality of African media. “A free press is an important way in which we hold our governments accountable in rich democratic countries,” said Easterly. “Why shouldn’t Africans have the right to freedom of the press as well?”
Easterly’s call is valid, though there is a strong and robust press in East Africa. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (known by their French initials RSF) has called Uganda’s press “pluralist and serious.” Certainly, Mwenda has proven a serious thorn in the side of his own government. The Independent focuses on uncovering official corruption and human rights abuses in Uganda. Since he established the bi-monthly magazine in December 2007, he has faced 20 criminal charges, including sedition, libel, and annoying the person of the president.
He and his staff have been arrested or detained more than a dozen times. In the most extreme event in March 2008, Ugandan military intelligence service raided his offices and threatened to shoot him. Mwenda braved out that threat and later told Parade, “The government can jail me or even kill me, but it cannot jail or kill the values and ideas for which we stand.”
But other journalists in the region have paid the highest price for those values and ideas. Last week police found the body of Kenyan journalist Francis Kainda Nyaruri in woods near Lake Victoria. He was tortured and then decapitated. Police say they are still looking for a motive but perhaps they know more than they are letting on. RSF said Nyaruri was recently threatened by police officers. Nyaruri had written a series of articles for a local weekly newspaper that exposed financial scams and other malpractice by the local police department.
The manner of his death bore similarities to that of New Zealand photographer Trent Keegan. Keegan was found dead in a trench in Nairobi with injuries to the back of the head. Police initially claimed he was killed in a robbery. However suspicions were raised when it was revealed that his laptop was stolen but his wallet containing US$60 was not. Keegan was investigating a land dispute in northern Tanzania between local Masai and a US based safari company at the time of his death. He had told colleagues he was concerned for his safety after the safari company had questioned him about his investigation.
Despite these incidents, Kenya is haven of safety compared to Somalia. Somalia is the deadliest country in Africa for journalists (only Iraq is more dangerous worldwide). This morning Roy Greenslade reported that Said Tahliil Ahmed was the latest Somali journalist to be shot dead. Ahmed was the director of HornAfrik, a radio and television station in Mogadishu, and his Islamist attackers killed him for reporting on the Somali presidential election (which is being held in neighbouring Djibouti for security reasons.) Ahmed is the second Somali journalist to die this year after Hassan Mayow Hassan was gunned down on New Year’s Day. Hassan was covering the conflict between the transitional federal government policy and insurgents in the region.
RSF have charted the grim death toll of Somali journalists. In 2008, eight were killed, four injured, some 50 journalists in exile, 53 arrested and others were force to hide at home after abandoning their work in fear. The press freedom body says the journalists were not only victims of political violence, but also “favourite targets for the transitional authorities, who see them as inconvenient witnesses of the chaos which they are unable to control.” Unfortunately, very little is done to protect them. As RSF said in their continental review in 2006: “In Africa, impunity is not a matter of bad luck, it is the general rule.”