Recently we published a special CPJ report to coincide with the UN declared International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists. The Journalist Special Correspondent, Shepi Mati, interviews Sue Valentine, Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) Africa Programme Co-Ordinator

What do you do at CPJ?
I’m the Africa Programme Co-ordinator. CPJ’s mission is to promote press freedom and defend the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. We promote free and independent journalism – and speak up for those who practise it whenever they are harassed, attacked or silenced.

We try to document each incident where a journalist is harassed or attacked – be it from the state, vigilante groups, unnamed attackers, or other interests. We recognise that the media can be undermined by the withholding of advertising or exhorbitant taxes on newsprint, as much as it can be harmed by physical attacks or threats against news institutions or individuals. I believe that when news institutions are inadequately resourced and journalists are not paid fairly, it further weakens the chances of a robust and independent press, but we don’t comment on labour disputes between employers and journalists.

What is the scope of your work and give us a picture of a typical day in your working life?
The scope is large – sub-Saharan Africa – and we are a small team! CPJ’s Africa Programme has representatives in East Africa (Nairobi) and West Africa (Abuja) and a full-time researcher based in New York, although this position has been vacant for the past few months, but someone is coming on board soon. I’m based in Cape Town so I’m six hours ahead of our New York head office and my colleague in Nairobi is an hour ahead of me. Between all of us, we can maintain almost 24-hour rolling coverage of media freedom issues across Africa.

A typical day involves scanning the news websites for any media freedom violations, checking our Twitter account for direct messages, engaging with followers, and tweeting relevant media information and press freedom concerns.

If there are incidents where journalists have been arrested or attacked, we follow up and determine whether to write up an “Alert” in which we’d report the circumstances and appeal to the relevant authorities to behave better!

The challenge is not to become formulaic in our responses and to find ways in which to engage with authorities. We realise that just because we criticise their actions and suggest another way it’s unlikely to happen, but we believe it’s important that these infringements don’t go unnoticed and unchallenged.

In addition to scanning the press freedom horizon for infringements, we try to identify trends or concerns and document these on our blog.

We also maintain lists, which we verify carefully, such as the number of journalists killed because of their work, or killed during the course of their work but not necessarily targeted for their profession.
Each year, we release a prison census on December 1 – providing a snapshot of the number of journalists in jail on that day around the world.

Lastly, but importantly, CPJ has a Journalist Assistance programme which provides direct assistance to journalists in distress. We vet applicants and wherever possible provide different forms of assistance – from financial support to writing letters on the journalist’s behalf – to get them out of danger or difficulty.

Why is it important to protect journalists?
Journalists ask questions on behalf of citizens, relay information, facilitate public discussion in the media and are critical to the free flow of information in society. For a democracy to work, citizens need information they can trust and information they can use to make informed decisions. If journalists aren’t able to function, or are constantly harassed, or begin to self-censor their reports out of fear, democracy dies.

What are the trends across the continent of Africa? And in southern Africa?
The situation in Ethiopia is bleak.  Ethiopia is the poster child for development and growth, and yet it is the continent’s second worst jailer of journalists after Eritrea. Addis Ababa has been defiant in the face of criticism from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and human rights organisations, and continues to silence independent journalists, usually through the application of its ill-defined and sweeping anti-terrorism law. Ethiopia has maintained a sustained attack on the independent press for the past three years, to the extent that there are virtually no independent media outlets left. This is disastrous ahead of next year’s elections. Ten young bloggers, part of the Zone 9 collective, have been charged under the country’s anti-terror laws in Ethiopia, a sweeping, ill-defined law under which others such as columnist Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye have been sentenced from 5 to 18 years in jail.

The Zone 9 bloggers were arrested in April 2014, to date their court case has been adjourned 10 times with their next court appearance due on November 4.

In Swaziland, the editor of the country’s only independent news magazine, Bheki Makhubu is in jail for two years on a criminal defamation charge. In his judgment at the end of July, the judge said he handed down a deliberately harsh sentence to serve as a deterrent to other journalists who might wish to criticise the operations of the Swazi justice department.

Zambia has blocked websites the government deemed too critical and last year brought spurious charges against three bloggers in an effort to silence them and intimidate others. The media in Zambia is largely state-owned, but there is a vibrant community and commercial sector, but their broadcasting footprint is restricted. However, party cadres all too often disrupt broadcasts or threaten stations when they deem the content is too critical of them – so the press freedom culture is very thin.

What accounts for variations?
Laws – or the lack thereof, or the lack of their application (insult laws, criminal defamation, false news – are among the most commonly used against journalists); the culture of society and its willingness to allow dissenting, critical views to be expressed; thick or thin-skinned politicians; whether access to information legislation exists and functions, whether broadcasting legislation that enshrines the independence of public, commercial, community stations from state control is in place and adhered to.

South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy this year. Which crimes have been committed against journalists under democracy?
While the press if free in South Africa, photographers most commonly bear the brunt of authorities’ anger towards or desire to control the work of journalists. There are numerous incidents of photojournalists being beaten or threatened by police, security guards, ministerial bodyguards, and occasionally communities.

There isn’t a deep culture of respect for the right of the media to document, to ask questions, or to air controversial views, but there have been very few crimes against journalists in South Africa since 1994..

As far as you know, what has been done by way of compensation for journalists for crimes perpetrated against them under apartheid?

Not aware of this.

Are we ending impunity?
Not in the Middle East where at least 90 journalists and media workers have been abducted in Syria.

Of the journalists killed:

  • 49% are freelance.
  • 85% are local.
  • 74% are killed in crossfire/combat.
  • 14% are murdered.

What difference is CPJ making?
We are campaigning for the new Sustainable Development Goals to include access to information and the creation of regulatory frameworks to guarantee press freedom and freedom of expression. We believe media freedom is intrinsically linked with genuine development.

We maintain a focus on journalists sentenced and jailed in Ethiopia (different journalists are serving sentences from 5 to 18 years) – to continue to call on Ethiopia to live up to its claims to be a democracy and to ensure that jailed journalists do not feel forgotten or abandoned.

We are part of the campaign led by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in the African Commission on Human & People’s rights to decriminalise defamation in Africa.

We are spearheading the #RightToReport campaign, petitioning the US government to end its surveillance of journalists and to prevent the harassment of journalists at the US border.