Masih Alinejad is an Iranian-American journalist, a women's rights campaigner, author of best-selling memoir, "The Wind in My Hair." Alinejad was selected as one of Time's 2023 Women of the Year, for her significant global impact in activism and as a leader using her voice to fight for equality worldwide. She will be a speaker at United Nations' World Press Freedom Day. Photo credit: Kambiz Foroohar/Wikimedia

The rise of journalist attacks and killings make United Nations’ World Press Freedom Day a timely program

8 mins read

Now more than ever, attention is called to defend the media and pay tribute to journalists killed or harmed for reporting critical stories.

On Tuesday, the United Nations will hold a program recognizing its thirtieth year of World Press Freedom Day. The initiative advocates for journalist protections and freedom of expression, especially in countries where reporters face daily, life-threatening consequences for their work. It also plans to look into the current state of press freedom throughout the world. “The proliferation of independent media in many countries and the rise of digital technologies have enabled the free flow of information,” the organization stated. “However, media freedom, safety of journalists and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack, which impacts the fulfillment of other human rights.”

The day’s agenda is filled with plenaries featuring prominent human rights advocates, press freedom activists, media leaders and renowned journalists. While the day brings together powerhouses in journalism, a part of the celebration will commemorate reporters who have been killed or severely injured. A report by NPR shows that 67 journalists were murdered in 2022, which is a 50 percent jump in press member deaths from the previous year.

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One death in particular is that of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot to death by an Israeli forces sniper bullet in the West Bank city of Jenin. A story by The Intercept says she, along with colleagues, had been targeted leading up to her death.

Even in the U.S., journalists are targeted. Last week, the United Nations held an event examining how law enforcement has been transformed in a carceral culture such as in America. There, jailed journalist Mumia Abu Jamal spoke. Abu Jamal was known for covering Philadelphia police corruption and the department’s abuses against Black political organization, MOVE. He was arrested for the murder of a Philadelphia officer and convicted in 1983 where he remains in prison.

At the time of his arrest, Abu-Jamal, a former member of the Black Panther Party of Self Defense, was the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and a syndicated correspondent for a number of publications including National Public Radio, National Black Network, Mutual Black Network, and Associated Press Radio. With this background, he presented MOVE defendants drastically different from local news outlets such as the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Press, press freedoms and African journalists

Diing Magot, a freelance journalist with the Voice of America South Sudan in Focus is currently seeking asylum in the U.S. Her appeal occurs after being detained by South Sudanese authorities. They arrested the journalist after she interviewed protest participants following a demonstration against high food prices in Juba, the country’s capital.

On Sunday morning, August 7, 2022, Magot received a text message requesting her to cover a university protest story motivated by a hike in food prices in Konyo Konyo market based in Juba.

At 4:00 p.m. Magot left for Nyakuron, a place close to the students’ hostel, to interview some of the student protesters. They conversed about the high cost of essential commodities and mentioned how some of their friends were arrested earlier that morning during the demonstration. To add salt to the injury, one of them got shot. After a short visit to the hospital, the wounded protester was rushed back to prison with their injuries minimally attended to.

While still in Nyakuron, four unknown men in civilian attire grabbed Magot then took her to an undisclosed location after her conversations with protestors. She was continuously slapped during questioning. “Everything happened so fast that I only realized later that they had already snatched my phone and recorder from the bag,” she told Ark Republic.

While in detention, the men, who were later identified as national security officials for South Sudan, coerced her into giving out her phone’s password, thus deleting her interview recording After questioning, Magot would be transferred to two more detainment centers with the last being prison. To add more trauma to the harrowing incident, while in prison, Magot’s braids were cut off.

According to her lawyer, Wani Steven, Magot possessed information that could be used for criminal purposes. The article, in this case, would have been the recording of an interview carried out before she was detained by authorities. Subsequently, she was charged under section 82 of South Sudan Penal code, for taking part in possession of items or materials that could be used for a crime.

Contrary to the concerns of Sudanese authorities, Wani confirms that it did not serve as a harmful item in any way. “The government has not yet proven if she committed the crimes she is accused of, and investigations are ongoing,” the lawyer confirmed.

Diing Magot (c) at the Every Day Nile exhibit at the Goethe-Institut Kairo in Cairo, Egypt, July 10, 2022. Photo credit: Diing Magot (Instagram)

Challenges of a free press

In relation to Magot’s arrest, on January 3, agents with the National Security Service detained six journalists with the state-run South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation. They were charged for allegedly leaking a video clip that appeared to show the country’s president urinating on himself.

The footage from December 2022 showed a dark stain spread down the 71-year-old president’s gray trousers as he stood for the national anthem at a road commissioning event. The video never aired on television, but subsequently circulated on social media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for the release of the detained reporters. 

A CPJ, sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo said the arrests match “a pattern of security personnel resorting to arbitrary detention whenever officials deem coverage unfavorable.” Mumo furthered. “Authorities should unconditionally release these six SSBC employees and ensure that they can work without further intimidation or threat of arrest.”

Reporters in Sudan face many challenges. Often, journalists face censorship, threats, intimidation, and unlawful arrest. So much so, the east African country ranks 128 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of 2022.

On February 13, on the occasion of marking World Radio Day, Michael J. Adler, the U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan, urged the government to allow journalists to work without fear of harassment and detention.

In the case of Magot, there is concern regarding the extent of illegality during the entire process of arrest. “Well, for starters, South Sudan has no data protection act,” Steven explained to Ark Republic. “Over time, the procedures that certain government institutions follow to access data, especially individual information on its citizens, have been deemed quite questionable,” he concluded. 

The physical assault and confiscation of personal items, like in the case of Magot, is illegal under the South Sudan constitution. On the whole, the situation points to a clash between the government and the press.

Media censorship to threaten independent journalism or to weed out bad actors in the protection of national security

South Sudan is still undergoing a critical political process even after its independence from Sudan in 2011. Two years following their independence, violence erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy turned rival, Riek Machar. Then in 2018, both of them signed a peace deal to end a five-year war that has killed tens of thousands.

The revitalized government of national unity was given three years to implement their agreement and conduct their first election since independence. However, the government extended it which would mean December 2024.

“There are a lot of dissenting voices from the opposition; some of them are not in accord with the People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA) and have attempted to go to the streets and call for a change of regime,” Wani states.

With this in mind, the government camps on the edge of tension, fearing that people with bad intentions could join in the protests. This would then establish a threat to national security. “It is a delicate subject as the police force must protect peaceful protests and people’s property simultaneously,” the lawyer expresses.

Be that as it may, following the history of the region, the government is not able to distinguish between the rights of the people and the protection of a regime.

“It is the constitutional right of the South Sudanese people to protest,” South Sudan-based economic analyst Morris Madut Kon lays out his sentiments. According to Kon, its citizens have been some of the most patient people. Civil servants are paid low wages, and some of those salaries don’t make it on time. The analyst expressed that, apart from many other factors, the nation solely depends on imports; hence why it faces numerous economic challenges.

“Suppressing citizens from airing their views because of any other reason is not sustainable.” He continues, “the government should listen to the people and try to act in ways that improve their livelihood.” 

Recurring obstacles for African press members

Comparable to South Sudan, pressure is mounting on authorities in Senegal to release a  detained journalist and human rights defender who is on hunger strike after reports of his deteriorating health.

The journalist, Pape Alé Niang, an investigative reporter with a wide domestic audience on Facebook and on the online news site he manages titled, Dakar Matin, was arrested last November — and again in December — after he reported on an investigation by the Senegalese security forces into the country’s main opposition leader.

In addition, Uganda fell prey to repressive anti-media laws under the previous and current administrations. The country has witnessed dictatorial regimes led by Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and most recently Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for the last 35 years. Museveni is purportedly running an authoritarian government following various accusations regarding media censorship, electoral fraud, and fear mongering via threats of violence.  

Police brutality against sleuths is also an issue. Many were shocked as three police officers  violently mishandled photojournalist James Akena during a 2018 protest following the arrest of a musician, activist, and politician, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu. The artist, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, has repeatedly proven to be a threat to the incumbent president as a result of his massive popularity. He vied for the presidency in the 2021 general elections and lost to Museveni. An enormous percentage of the public strongly rejected Robert’s defeat.

In a dire need to restrict internet use, Egypt and Uganda are the only two countries to restrict VPN use. Despite VPNs being legal, many VPN providers’ websites and servers are blocked. Subsequently, this obstructs journalists from acquiring essential information.

Eritrea seems to be far up the list following the imprisonment of 16 journalists, some of whom are alleged to have died while in detention, while the rest have no prospects of a fair trial, as recorded by CPJ. The journalists faced prejudice from the government for sending information outside the country. 

Today, only a few selected journalists remain, but are said to be those in favor of the government’s policy because they act as government mouthpieces. Not only this, but currently, the country does not own independent media, and all internet traffic is routed through an internet government provider.

When asked about it, President Isaias Afwerki said, “if you take the financing and management of media, that is, CNN, BBC or even Aljazeera, by special interest groups as freedom of the press, I can tell you we will not be part of that kind of freedom of the press.” 

In a response to the climate in Eritrea, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) opines, “there is no room for freely reported news; the media is subject to the whims of the president.” In 2021, RSF rated Eritrea as having the worst overall press freedom in the world, even lower than North Korea.

The Eritrean government has held a monopoly over broadcasting since independence. At one time, the country had a few privately-owned newspapers, but they were closed in 2001 as part of a crackdown on the opposition. Currently, the future of the aforementioned journalists remains unknown. Various bodies such as CPJ are in partnership with other organizations such as the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. They continue to call for accountability regarding the cases of captured journalists.

One thing remains crystal clear throughout the various issues in the region: the affiliation between politically unstable governments and repressive anti-media laws in Africa has resulted in unfortunate circumstances for journalists.

Kaia Shivers contributed to the article.

Nyawira Mithayo covers Ewith an interest in community activism.

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