A Ticket To Hell
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, September 1999|
A Ticket To Hell
Continued from page one.
IN SOME COUNTRIES physical assaults, such as those Choto and Chavunduka experienced, have given way to more subtle means of silencing "troublesome" free press advocates. In May, the state brought murder and conspiracy charges against Lanre Arogundade, a leader in the Nigerian Union of Journalists.
It was, supporters say, an attempt to railroad him into a prison system known for its brutality and take him out of running for re-election as head of the powerful journalists' organization. He was forced to pay $2,500 bail, a large sum by Nigerian standards, while he awaits the outcome of a police investigation.
In protest, the International Federation of Journalists charged that Arogundade, 37, was arrested solely on the word of known political opponents, some of whom work for the federal government, and that he was being persecuted for union activities and his stalwart defense of an unfettered press system.
Under his leadership, the local arm of the NUJ in Lagos, formerly the Nigerian capital, aggressively campaigned against government repression and raised funds for journalists languishing in Nigeria's prisons during the brutal regime of Sani Abacha, who died in June 1998.
At that time, state-controlled newspapers labeled Arogundade a CIA agent and claimed the United States was using the journalists' union to destabilize Nigeria. Among evidence cited: a seminar on media and democracy sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Lagos and attended by NUJ members.
In 1999, with a new government in place, the harassment has continued. Earlier this year, police charged Arogundade with stealing union vehicles. They arrested him at his home around 7 a.m. and impounded a bus and a van. He was cleared and released by 9 p.m.
In March, a female member of the journalists' union was found shot to death in a town 150 kilometers from Lagos. Around the same time, Arogundade was speaking at an executive meeting of the NUJ in Lagos. A few weeks later, he was charged with the murder. Four security police pounded on his door one morning and drove him to the town where the body was found. He was locked in a holding pen with 70 other inmates and subjected to interrogations for 20 days. Upon his release, he was ordered to check in at the police station twice a month.
It was his fourth arrest since 1985, when he served as president of the National Association of Nigerian Students. "They feel I have to be punished for what I am doing," says Arogundade, who was presented a press freedom award at the West African Journalists Association conference.
After the police investigation, the Ministry of Justice will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial. If he is tried and found guilty, he could face death by hanging.
Under Abacha's iron rule, dozens of journalists languished in Nigeria's prisons, and many more were terrorized. Two of them, Bagauda Kaltho of the News and Chinedu Offoaro of the Guardian, disappeared in 1996 after detention by state security agents. Both are rumored to be dead. In February 1998, masked gunmen smashed into the home of Tunde Oladepo, senior correspondent with the Guardian, and shot him in front of his wife and children. Nothing was taken; police ruled out robbery as a motive.
A CPJ report noted that Abacha's death did little to expunge one of his despotic legacies--a wide array of onerous decrees, such as allowing the government to seize publications deemed likely to "disturb the peace and public order of Nigeria," which can be used to punish journalists.
DESPITE THE BLEAK outlook and unhappy litanies of abuse in certain countries, experts on African media point to hopeful signs: More journalists and media organizations are aggressively fighting to establish independent press operations, expand and diversify news coverage, and obtain training to boost professionalism, build credibility and gain public respect. In Uganda, the independent press has become "the bulwark of pluralism and civil society" and provides the country's primary forum for political debate, even in the face of government interference, according to a CPJ report.
In places like Ghana, Ivory Coast and South Africa, publications post editions on the Internet, providing a global audience for their news agenda. Some media outlets have won significant court battles, signaling increased support from judiciaries in parts of the continent.
Among the breakthroughs:
In Niger, thousands took to the streets in 1998 to protest after the military vandalized Radio Anfani and arrested its staff--another sign, Africa watchers say, that the public vigorously supports independent media. Similarly, in February, riot police were forced to use tear gas to disperse demonstrators protesting the torture of Zimbabwe's Choto and Chavunduka.
In South Africa, the Supreme Court ruled that journalists are not liable in defamation suits, even if the reports turn out to be untrue, as long as reporters can show that they were reasonably careful in their work.
In Liberia, a country recovering from a devastating civil war, the press union waged a successful campaign against passage of strict guidelines that would have muzzled independent media.
Bettina Peters, project director of the International Federation of Journalists, expresses guarded optimism. "In the last 10 years, African journalists have made enormous steps forward. It remains extremely difficult; a lot of people have to suffer horribly. But the situation is not hopeless, and that's what keeps them going," Peters says.
She cites the example of Sierra Leone, where "the press is embroiled in a mess" but continues to play a key role in fostering political development. Journalists in Africa, she says, are driven by a mission to further the cause of democracy, human rights, civil society. "They are deeply dedicated" despite volatile relationships with government, adds the IFJ project director.
Chudi Ukpabi agrees. A media consultant in Africa for the past decade, Ukpabi has watched the African press corps move into what he views as a role similar to that of journalists in America a century ago, with news outlets functioning as instruments of dissent, providing diverse opinions and pushing political leaders to fulfill promises.
It has been an uphill battle, he says, because in many African countries, dissent has not been part of the culture. Government has no concept of the Fourth Estate. Journalists often are simply viewed as nuisances who create conflict.
Another snag for the fledgling independent press has been the breakdown of postcolonial order in Africa, giving way to the phenomenon of "warlord politics" that continues to ignite regional conflicts. Journalists often find themselves assigned to some aspect of that volatile beat where almost anything they produce offends one faction or the other, creating a constant state of vulnerability.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, seven factions are involved in the fighting. In Sierra Leone, some editors and reporters have hired bodyguards after publishing accounts of atrocities by rebel armies. Somalia continues to be plagued by clan warfare, creating a perilous environment for editors struggling to produce small newsletters that attempt to shed light on the conflict.
Still, many of those on the scene agree that, overall, conditions for the growth of independent media have improved. Experts like Peters caution that freedom is a relative term. "Some of the problems we are talking about [at this conference] exist because there is a more independent press. If there was strict government control, as in the past, journalists wouldn't be getting into these issues," she says.
Within the continent's history lie clues to how the media have evolved. A publication titled "Reporting on Ethnic Diversity in Africa" cites fallout from colonial rule, which imposed "fault lines" on the ethnic map and prevented local populations from solving their own problems. The British favored some ethnic groups over others, laying groundwork for future conflicts. The French pattern of direct rule allowed no room for political development.
After liberation, which often followed civil war, most African countries experienced one-party rule, with political leaders viewing any opposition as dangerous to their cause. Print and broadcast outlets were highly controlled and strict laws were passed forbidding reporting that might cause "public anxiety" or "threaten the integrity of the state." Journalists who strayed simply disappeared or were imprisoned.
For many, the threat of disappearing into hellish surroundings remains.
Across the board, those attending the WAJA conference described prison conditions in Africa as horrendous: damp dungeons full of mosquitoes, disease and filth. "When governments decide to teach journalists a lesson, they put them in the worst of these places," Ukpabi says.
In some countries, fear is used to encourage self-censorship. Conference participants told of instances where journalists have been threatened with injections of slow-acting poison or the AIDS virus if they continue covering certain topics. In one case, a reporter in Zambia was told she would be gang-raped while in detention.
Contact with the outside may be the African journalists' best safety net. Publicity from the international press corps when abuses occur, pressure from Western governments tied to loss of economic aid and protests from media watchdog groups--all send a message that the world is watching.
"Visibility is extremely important," Peters says. "The campaigns local journalists wage in these cases can't be overestimated." Often media organizations, such as the Nigerian Union of Journalists, become the first line of defense.
More than anything else, outsiders tend to be struck by the individual acts of courage and staying power of African journalists against seemingly insurmountable odds. Joan Mower, the Freedom Forum's program manager for Africa, echoed a popular sentiment when she noted their "amazing attitude and spirit."
"There is a resourcefulness, a feeling that nothing can get them down," Mower says. "You see good journalism despite the major poverty and repression, and there is a thirst for it that we don't find in many places."
Mower might have been describing Yorro Jallow, 31, a freelance writer from The Gambia and a former BBC correspondent, who, during a tour of the capital city, asked the driver to stop in front of a sprawling building. "That is our hotel," he said, grinning widely at his own joke. "It is where they take us when we are arrested."
The last time a story landed him in a jail cell, his 75-year-old father, a retired farmer, sold two cows, his prized possessions, to pay his son's bail. "He never wanted me to be a journalist," Jallow says. "But it is my passion. I have no choice. It is our only hope if we are to change Africa."
As AJR went to press, Abdulai Bayraytay remained undecided about whether to go into hiding in Sierra Leone, leave in self-imposed exile or continue his radio call-in show and freelance writing while he gauges the danger in Freetown.
Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka have challenged the law under which they were arrested and await a Supreme Court hearing. They are attempting to press criminal charges against their torturers.
Lanre Arogundade remains an accused murderer, awaiting a decision by the Ministry of Justice on whether his case will be dropped or if he must go on trial, with his life on the line. ###
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