Walking Through a Minefield at Midnight
IN THE NEWS:
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill by South Africa's government has left the media reeling. By criminalising the possession of information deemed "valuable" to the state as well as the distribution of state secrets, government officials will be able to muzzle the press where they see fit. Investigative journalists could be sentenced to up to 25 years. Critics say the bill damages South Africa's already weakened credibility on tackling corruption and intimidates those who try to expose it. The ruling African National Congress argues it is essential for protecting state information and keeping spies at bay.
The bill is yet to become law but even this step has exposed what many see as the government's true colours where press freedom is concerned. Writing for The Zimbabwean, Geoff Hill says, ‘We must not forget that under cover of censorship, African states were able to commit the most terrible human-rights abuse, and impose tyranny on their subjects without fear of public criticism, and many who should have known better said nothing. Let us hope it is not too late to have their cry heard in this new struggle for freedom.’
'THE AFRICAN STORY, TOLD THE AFRICAN WAY'
A new series is airing on Al Jazeera called Africa Investigates. In it, African journalists go undercover to expose those responsible for corruption and wrongdoing across the continent. Whether exploring the reasons behind the mass exodus of Zimbabwean youths in search of a better life, or revealing the extent of the damage done to Sierra Leone’s endangered forests by illegal logging, this series is a reminder of the vital nature of the work undertaken by African journalists who operate in extremely difficult circumstances to tell their story. They are often forced to work under anonymity in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.
But the value of such a series is in fact three-fold. It also elucidates what can otherwise be a murky picture of endemic and apparently insurmountable corruption by exposing specific individuals. The journalists’ stories shed light on the obstacles which remain in the path of progress and justice and in doing so clarify exactly what needs to be overcome in order to improve the situation. They give a much needed voice to those forced to live in the shadows cast by the underhand dealings at the top.
However, it also stresses the difficulties African journalists face in taking the lead role when it comes to telling stories from their country. Zimbabwean journalist Stanley Kwenda says they have grown used to having foreign correspondents, often with little local knowledge, telling their stories, “In the past, I have worked as a fixer for foreign journalists in Zimbabwe; used to running around at someone else's beck and call rather than being the 'action man'. For a long time, I wanted to be able to tell the story of my country and my continent on television but never had an opportunity to do so. After struggling with this for many years, I have now finally had the chance to tell that story in front of the camera. This is unique to me, as like most African journalists, I have become used to our stories being told by foreigners, some with little or no knowledge of the local landscape or culture.”
For journalists like myself who endeavour to report on Africa, this is a precious reminder that whenever a story is told, it must be done in such a way that it remains truthful, accurate and sensitive. Ultimately, it should do justice to the work of African journalists. It is they who have set the bar in terms of dedication, commitment and courage. For being an investigative journalist in Africa can be like walking through a minefield at midnight.
QUOTE OF THE MONTH:
"A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy... It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens." Nelson Mandela, 1994
PRESS FREEDOM BAROMETER:
59 Journalists killed
3 media assistants killed
171 journalists imprisoned
9 media assistants imprisoned
123 netizens imprisoned
For more information visit Reporters Without Borders