When four journalists linked to a British media institution were bundled-up and jailed on frivolous espionage charges by Liberia's dictator Charles Taylor, the world barked. Nelson Mandela sent pleading messages to the "strongman", a man he had once lavishly entertained as a visiting, fellow African president. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, always keen on not missing an opportunity to champion good causes for media and public attention, stormed the CNN pleading the men's case.
International media institutions threw their influence behind the men. The arrests became a global media sensation which human rights organizations were just too happy to exploit for the needed headlines. Now that four poor Liberian journalists working for an obscure media outlet have been grabbed on an identical charge and dumped into a madman's dungeon, their plight remains the reserve of their families and a few media organizations with human rights agendas. The jailed men are Africans. Their agony makes no news on a continent buried in ghastlier horrors.
Caught firmly in the clutches of intolerance and senile tyranny, the African journalist continues to pay the thankless price for independent thinking. From Sierra Leone to Algeria (where at least 69 journalists have been killed since 1993), Angola, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, etc., the story of the African journalist is the basically same: summary executions, arbitrary arrests, closure of media outlets, economic deprivation, and exile. Africa has registered one of the highest numbers of killed journalists in recent times.
Hence the case of the Liberian journalists follows a typical pattern of how the world sees horrors and injustice. What claims world attention, despite all the mammoth campaigns and rhetoric about human rights and democracy, has to do with one's nationality or race. Horrific abuses and events in Africa hardly get attention except when linked to European or American names or interests. For example, few in Europe knew if a country called Guinea existed. But this has changed since a European, The Netherlands' Ruud Lubbers, is now head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UHNCR) faced with mounting refugee problems in that country. Guinea is now known, particularly in Holland. His presence there is news, and if the plight of tens of thousands of refugees is mentioned in passing, good luck! (This is journalism, what used to be called "Afghanistanism" - distant issues not to bother home readers with. But with refugees storming Europe daily in search of Paradise, should this change? )
After the Liberian journalists were arrested, Taylor consoled confidantes not to worry about international outcry. "They will get tired and shut up", he reportedly declared. Indeed! For weeks now, despite their apology (following the example of the British journalists) in anticipation of freedom, they languish in insect-infested cells with fading hopes of a free trial or freedom. President Jimmy Carter, one of the international notables instrumental in the release of the British journalists, and who in 1997 assured Liberians that such abuses were "inconceivable" under a President Taylor, has kept his silence as many others have. The issue is not big enough to attract his noble attention. This is the curse of the African, be he or she a journalist, a pro-democracy activist. You have a few allies. You take your risks and bear the consequences. Has the once unknown now acclaimed Sierra Leone's Soros Samora not been born by the CNN and given a human face, he would have rotted in Liberia's notorious prisons as a faceless, nameless victim.
But in some cases, the African journalist is his/her crucifier. Often blinded by material offers from sinister individuals, many have sacrificed their long-term interests - the coveted freedom to think freely and write freely-for short-term financial gain. In Liberia in 1997, few journalists saw the innate evil they were selling and promoting as a savoir. Faced with enormous personal economic problems exacerbated by the war, they placed their pens and minds at the service of men and women who would soon escort them to the gallows once elected. Many Liberian journalists could not see that their colleagues responsible for oiling the repressive propaganda machine of Samuel Doe junta were either dead or had fled. The human folly - "it will not happen to me" - ruled their minds and directed their pens. In most of Africa, the problem is the same. Note the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) in its 1998 report:
"The African media, moreover, are heavily politicised by the endemic cash shortage. Journalists often take bribes from powerful elites, either to hush up embarrassing news or to exaggerate potentially good news. Thus, editorial independence is severely compromised, not only in the state media, but also in the currently expanding private media sectorCallous thieves like the former dictators Mubutu and Abacha brought billions of dollars to their personal bank accounts abroad, and thus undermined crucial for growth and prosperity -and press freedom in their countries. The small-time despots, similarly, attempt to justify the silencing of critical media with the pretexts like 'integrity of the state', national security' or reputation and prestige of the country and its army...."
Whatever the shortcomings, the woes of the African journalist are inexcusable. When a European journalist returning from Malawi castigated that country's journalists, accusing all of being influenced by "brown envelopes" (bribes), it indicated the contempt with which African journalists are held. Poor, heavily underpaid, hunted down by soldiers, political and rebel leaders, ignored by civil society when taken to the hangman's ropes, the typical African journalist lives from day to day, without any idea of what tomorrow holds. Overwhelmed by oppressive forces, the freedom to develop ideas is hampered. Repeated arrests and imprisonment, torture, dampen the mind, reducing it to a zombie object. It no longer knows how to function properly. Fear is a deadly weapon against the mind. These terror tactics against ideas simply deprive one of his/her humanity. The environment for creativity, for investigative and probing journalism, even for developing literature, is plagued with dangers. Critical thinking is disallowed, replaced by sheepish obedience, fear and mediocrity. Journalism in Africa is a dangerous, poor man's profession reserved mostly for idealistic crusaders expected to foster democracy but left in their sorrows by the larger society.