London — When former footballer George Weah became president of Liberia in 2018, media practitioners felt they had in him a democrat who would champion media freedoms. "But we were mistaken," journalist Henry Costa told IPS.
Any objective assessment of the relationship between West Africa governments and media organisations will conclude that, but for a few exceptions, the outlook for press freedom in the sub-region is a bleak one.
From Cameroon and Ghana, to Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal, journalists and media organisations are being attacked for simply doing their jobs. The fact that these attacks emanate from mostly state actors, who as a rule remain unpunished, points to a culture of impunity.
Liberia is a case in point.
"The president does not like criticism," said Costa, owner of Roots FM and host of the station's popular Costa Show. "And because we are critical of some policies, our offices have been attacked on two occasions by armed men and our equipment damaged and some stolen."
Some would say Costa was lucky, for the corpse of another journalist, Tyron Brown, was dumped outside his home last year by a mysterious black jeep. A man has confessed to killing the journalist in self-defence but his colleagues are not convinced. They believe the murder was a message - mind your words or you could be next.
This climate of fear was heightened when Weah accused a BBC correspondent being against his government. Then Front Page Africa, a newspaper that has been critical of successive governments, was fined 1.8 million dollars in a civil defamation lawsuit brought by a friend of the president.
Mae Azango, a senior Front Page Africa reporter, said the government's new tactic was to "strangulate the free press" by refusing to pay tens of thousands owed for media advertisements. "One minister said since the media does not write anything good about the government, it won't pay debt owed, which will compel some media outlets to shut down," she said. "Some media houses have not paid staff for up to eight months."
In Ghana, once Africa's top-ranked media-friendly country, things have deteriorated to the level where a sitting politician openly called on supporters to attack a journalist whose documentary on corruption in Ghanaian football exposed him. Ahmed Divela was subsequently shot dead last January. In 2015 another journalist, George Abanga, was also shot dead on assignment.
In March 2018 Latif Iddrisu, a young reporter, was covering a story when he was dragged into the Accra headquarters of the police and given a merciless beating which left him with a fractured skull.
Iddrisu told IPS by phone: "Journalists are being threatened with assault and death by politicians and people in power because they feel threatened by our exposés." He doubts whether the passage of freedom of information (FOI) legislation will improve matters.
This position is borne out in Nigeria where the passing of FOI laws has not deterred officials from denying journalists access to information they need to carry out their jobs. According to Dapo Olorunyomi, the Central Bank and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (the NNPC) are the "most opaque institutions" in the country. Olorunyomi, editor-in-chief of Premium Times Newspaper, added: "So you are allowed to write what you want, but if you get it wrong you suffer the consequences." He and journalists working for him have been arrested on several occasions to get them to reveal their sources.
The case of Jones Abiri is instructive. The journalist was incarcerated for two years without trial. And physical attacks on reporters have increased four-fold in recent times. Figures show that attacks on journalists and the press quadrupled in 2015-2019, compared to the preceding five year period.
Media academic Dr Chinenye Nwabueze maintains that the violence heightens during elections. "In the 'season' of elections, a journalist operates like a car parked - at owner's risk," he told IPS. "You could end up in the crossfire between opposing parties or thugs."
The same story of violence and intimidation against journalists is replicated in francophone countries like Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali. The most serious of them is Cameroon, where the government continues to prosecute media critics in military or special courts. As Angela Quintal, Africa Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told IPS, "Cameroon is the second-worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, and the second in the world for jailing journalists on false news charges."
Sierra Leone and the Gambia are the two countries that emerge relatively blemish-free in our survey of the landscape of press freedom in West Africa. Both have relatively new governments that have promised repeal criminal libel laws that their predecessors had used to clamp down on the media. From Sierra Leone, reporter Amadu Lamrana Bah of AYV Media told IPS: "The president says he is committed to repealing [criminal libel laws] and the process is on."
His statement echoes that of Sheriff Bojang Jr, president of the Gambia Press Union, who said: "We no longer work in a fearful or repressive environment, but our major problem is the lack of information coming out of government, the total lack of transparency. But the government have promised to make changes."
This is a reference to the absence of FOI legislation in the country, which the government has promised to "deal with in due course". But the Gambians only have to look to similarly "blemish-free" Sierra Leone, to realise that FOI will count for nought if the authorities are not prepared to honour its provisions - as this reporter discovered while researching a story on sexual violence against Sierra Leonean women and another on diamond mining.
The Ministries of Justice, Mines, and Information in Freetown refused to provide the information we requested, even though they had initially promised they would. That recent experience came to mind when, during his interview for this piece, Liberian reporter Henry Costa said the Weah government "were pretending to be tolerant" but "would go to their old tricks" when economic hardships trigger anti-government protests and the media begin to report on them.
Since Sierra Leone and the Gambia are currently implementing International Monetary Fund policies, it is only a matter of time before those policies begin to bite the people. If the "Costa equation" is correct, then it is likewise only a matter of time before we find out whether the "blemish-free" authorities in Freetown and Banjul are as toxic to press freedom as their counterparts in Cameroon and Ghana, or indeed, their immediate predecessors.
"Journalists do essential work to keep the public informed, often in difficult circumstances in West and Central Africa," Sadibou Marong, the Regional Media Manager for Amnesty's West and Central Africa Office, told IPS. "They must be protected to do their work freely, and without fear of attacks or threats. Governments in the region should promote media freedom and protect media workers and organisations."