Journalists across West and Central Africa are facing intimidation and harassment and being targeted with arrest and assault for doing their work while media outlets are often closed down and the Internet journalists rely on to undertake their work shut down, Amnesty International said on World Press Freedom Day as it called on governments in the region to promote media freedom and protect media workers and organizations.
The organization added that despite distressing levels of attacks against journalists in some countries in the region - along with the shutdown of several publications - there are glimmers of hope in others.
"From Liberia to Togo, the onslaught of attacks against journalists continues unabated with arbitrary arrests and assaults on media workers while they are covering protests or otherwise exercising their right to freedom of expression," said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for West and Central Africa.
"However, there are also some positive signs, such as the release of journalist Ahmed Abba - who had been sentenced to death in Cameroon - and the reform of repressive media laws by the new government in Gambia."
Threats against media
One country where threats against journalists prevail is Liberia. According to reports, on 16 April, Tyron Brown - a reporter, camera operator and video editor for a local radio and television channel - was found dead in the capital Monrovia.
His body was dropped off at his home by a group of men in a vehicle, with his cell phone and money intact. Authorities have launched an investigation into his death, some suspects were arrested but not charged yet.
Another journalist, the BBC local correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh, fled the country for fear of reprisals from supporters of new President George Weah, who has accused him during a press conference of questioning his fight for human rights during the country's civil war.
Congolese journalist, Ghys Fortuné Dombé Bemba, editor of the Talassa newspaper, was arrested in January 2017 for publishing a statement by Reverend Ntumi, leader of the "Ninjas", an armed group operating in the Pool department. He was charged with "complicity in undermining state security."
Use of excessive force and harassment by security forces
In Niger and Côte d'Ivoire, journalists are regularly targeted by security forces simply for doing their job or criticizing the authorities. In March, Côte d'Ivoire journalist and blogger Daouda Coulibaly was assaulted and arrested by police while covering an opposition protest. He was beaten on his knee with a baton and dragged on the ground. He was later refused permission to file a complaint at the police station.
Last month, journalist and blogger Samira Sabou was twice prevented by security forces in Niger from covering a protest - police confiscating her materials, press card and phone before later giving them back.
On 3 April in Niger, well-known journalist Baba Alpha was informed - just as he was due to be released from prison - that he was being stripped of his Nigerien nationality and deported to Mali. He was escorted to the Malian border without being allowed to inform his wife or family.
In Chad, journalists continued to be attacked by security forces for merely doing their job. Alwihda Info's journalist Djimet Wiche, was beaten up by security forces while covering a civil society anti-austerity protest on 25 January 2018. On 10 February 2018, security forces entered the office of a private radio channel, Oxygène FM to prevent journalists to cover a student anti-austerity protest that was taking place.
Escalating political violence have also put journalists and media establishments at risk in some countries in the region. The state of press freedom has significantly deteriorated in Guinea, where several journalists have been arrested and publications suspended. On 30 October 2017, four Gangan TV journalists were arrested by gendarmes in Matam, a neighborhood of Conakry, and charged with publishing false information and offending the head of state by spreading rumors of his death.
Three of them were released hours later and one was the following day. At least 18 journalists who gathered in solidarity with the arrested journalists at the Matam gendarmerie were beaten and had their equipment broken by security forces. In the same country, in March 2018, groups of demonstrators attacked the premises of Hadafo Média, a media group whose operations include two radio stations (Espace and Sweet FM) and a television station (Espace TV).
Internet shutdowns are emerging as a standard practice across the region to undermine the ability of journalists among others to carry out their work, with cuts reported in Togo, Sierra Leone, Chad and Cameroon.
In Togo, the authorities shut down the internet for nine days in September 2017 amid opposition-led protests, disrupting the organization of the protest and impeding the work of human rights defenders and journalists who were monitoring the protests.
In Chad, the authorities continued to block access to websites and blogs critical to the government. Since mid-March 2018, access to social media platforms and messaging services including WhatsApp is restricted. People could only access them by using a virtual private network (VPN).
Press Code with vaguely worded provisions
Amnesty International has raised concerns on the fact that Senegal's new press Code adopted in June 2017 contains vaguely worded provisions that give the authorities power to target journalists for offences relating to their work.
It gives authorities the power to order the seizure of property used to publish or broadcast information; to suspend or stop a television or radio program; and to provisionally close a media outlet on overly broad national security or territorial integrity grounds. It also allows the banning of foreign newspapers and periodicals.
Glimmers of hope
Despite these disturbing trends, some parts of the region have shown signs of progress. In Gambia, the new government committed to reforming several repressive media laws, prompting a number of journalists who fled into exile due to harassment, intimidation and threat of imprisonment under the previous government to return to the country.
Meanwhile, a regional court found that Gambian laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation violate the right to freedom of expression. The authorities said they would comply with the judgment.
The December 2017 release of RFI journalist Ahmed Abba, who had been sentenced to death in Cameroon, was another encouraging step, even if Abba should have never been arrested in the first place.
"Many journalists do essential work to inform people in West and Central Africa, often in difficult circumstances. It is the responsibility of the authorities in the region to ensure the media can do their work freely, and without fear of attacks or threats," said Samira Daoud.