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The Journalist as an Endangered Species

May 7, 2008, 6:12 AM | Article By: By Pa Louis Thomasi

A Lecture from the IFJ Regional Africa Office, Presented By Pa Louis Thomasi, At the Maiden Edition of the Deyda Hydara Lecture Series

May 3, 2008

The Gambia Press union last Saturday joined the rest of the world to mark world Press Freedom day at the Alliance Franco Gambiene, Mr. Louise Thomasi of  IFJ  in Dakar gave lectures on the topic Journalist as an Endangered species

All over the world, journalists have continued to face serious threats to their lives in the exercise of their noble duties. In performing their task to get the audience of the world informed, journalists have to go to great lengths in order to dig at the truth and to get the facts unblemished.  This is not always an easy task for journalists, as they are often specifically targeted for murder, for simply reporting the news. There are two dimensions to this phenomenon; namely journalists who report the news from the war front and those who perform these duties in peace time.  It is erroneously believed that the majority of journalists who die on active duty are murdered on the battle field.  However, a recent survey has revealed that contrary to this fallacious notion, more journalists are actually killed at home, while covering local events. Danger and death, therefore, seems imminent for the journalist wherever he/she is assigned to work, thus making journalism one of the most dangerous professions and journalists the latest to be added on the list of endangered species.

In the past decade alone, about 1000 journalists have been killed in the world in various circumstances.  Most of these victims were shot and killed while investigating and reporting stories in their own countries.  Since 2000, the media world has witnessed a steady increase in the number of journalists killed annually.  According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 2006 Yearly Report: (Journalists Put to the Sword in 2006) 2006 has been the worst year for journalists as it recorded "at least 155 murders of journalists and media workers" around the world.   The common denominator behind these murders is that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes are yet to be brought to justice. 

While Iraq and Somalia have been noted as death grounds for journalists who have been covering the war, countries like Russia, Colombia and Mexico have become notorious for killing journalists who cover stories relating to corruption, drug trafficking, women and child trafficking and other criminal related activities.  Traces of such negative and callous practices have also been evident in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Confronted by these brute and horrendous deaths and unabated death threats, one may therefore ask "Why do decent men and women continue to work as journalists?"  Should these rare and endangered species abandon the profession once and for all? Will they ever become extinct? The answers to these vexed questions may not be very farfetched.

Journalism is a noble profession.  Perhaps, the most noble of all professions.  Despite the fact that the profession has been infiltrated by quacks and criminals who disguise themselves with the clothes of journalism and wreck havoc and stain the profession by flouting all ethical concerns; the profession is still the bedrock of men and women of calibre and timber;   men and women of unstained integrity, dignity and pride who strive to inform, educate and entertain their audience with unstained objectivity by simply telling the TRUTH; by simply reporting the news as it is in exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

 Let me state with authority that Freedom of Expression is a fundamental human right.  Apart from the "Right to Life" there is no other right that is more significant than the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.  Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." This very principle has been repeatedly borrowed and enshrined in most of our national constitutions and other international instruments.

Similarly, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights guarantees the freedom of expression.  Other international conventions, like the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which The Gambia is a party to also guarantees freedom of expression. In Africa, perhaps with the exception of Morocco, all the countries have signed and ratified the African Charter, thus taking a commitment to uphold the principles of the Charter.   Likewise, the African Union, in the Preamble of its Constitutive Act has expressed its determination "To promote and protect human and peoples' rights, consolidate democratic institutions and culture, and to ensure good governance and the rule of law."

It could therefore be stated, that the media of mass communication as an institution is the very foundation of a healthy democracy.  Good governance and the rule of law cannot be achieved and sustained anywhere, where the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press in particular are suppressed. The media is an essential component to any democracy. There can be no meaningful development without the popular participation of the general citizenry, who are most effectively mobilised through the channels of the media, which provides them the opportunity to express their views concerning the way in which they are governed.  Hence, the media's contribution to the development of any nation state must be seen as paramount.

Death at the War Front and in Civil Unrests

At the war front, journalists continue to be victims of the warring factions.  These factions erroneously believe that journalists who cover these conflicts are supporters or sympathisers of the other group and hence giving vital information to them.  While some are killed in the cross fire, most journalists who die at the war front are specifically targeted for murder.  

There are journalists who have also been kidnapped by these warring factions and in the process have been tortured, brutalized and dehumanized.  This has been the case in Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia and Somalia.  Similarly, journalists have also been victims in covering demonstrations or other forms of public unrest.  On numerous cases, security forces, while stopping the demonstrators, have also pounced on journalists, vandalising and confiscating their equipment and in the process, harassing and brutalising them.  Some journalists have also lost their lives in this manner.

In the past few years, Iraq has been a nightmare for journalists.  By December 2006, the number of journalists and media workers who fell in Iraq reached a record figure of 69 bringing the total to 171 journalists who have been killed since April 2003. According to the Iraqi Syndicate of Journalists, which is an affiliate of the IFJ, 65 Iraqi journalists were killed in 2007, updating the total to 236 Iraqi journalists who have been killed since the US invasion.

In relation to Africa, there have also been horrible accounts of journalists who have been deliberated targeted for murder while covering conflicts.  In 1990, two of our colleagues, Knees Imodibie of the Guardian Newspaper in Nigeria and Toyo Awotunsin of the Champion newspaper in Nigeria were shot and murdered while covering the war in Liberia.  The media fraternity in the West African sub- region strongly believes that Knees and Toyo were murdered under the orders of the Charles Taylor, who is now before the

International Court
in The Hague.

International Court
in The Hague.

More horrible scenes were witnessed in Sierra Leone nine years later. In 1999, during the civil war in Sierra Leone, up to ten journalists were all brutally murdered in relation to their work, mainly by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Jenner Cole, Mohamed Kamara, Paul Abu Mansary, Abdul Juma Jalloh, Conrad Roy, Alpha Amadou Bah and Mabay Kamara are all Sierra Leonean journalists who met their untimely deaths while performing their social responsibility functions.  While Abdul Juma Jalloh of the African Champion was shot by ECOMOG soldiers under the "notion of mistaken identity", Paul Abu Mansary was killed with his entire family when his house was set on fire by the unruly and reckless RUF.

Somalia continues to be the most dangerous place for journalists in the continent. The deadly activities of the Somali warlords have actually made the country ungovernable. For the past 15 years, lawlessness has reigned supreme in Somalia. Every facet of life has been affected in this country as repeated governance structures have been destroyed and rudely replaced   by a collection of domains ruled by warlords who pose as politicians and businessmen. Journalists have continuously been at the receiving end in this country. Out of the 14 journalists who were killed in Africa in 2007, eight of them died in Somalia.  Ali Mohammed Omar, Mohammed Abdullahi Khalif, Abshir Ali Gabra, Ahmed Hassan, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, Abdulkadir Mohad Moallim Kaskey, Ali Imam Shamarke and Boshiir Noor Gedi all fell to the assassin's bullet in Somalia in 2007.  Mohad Ahmed Elmi of Capital Voice Radio Station, which is owned by Horn Afrik Media Incorporation, was gunned down on his way to work on August 11, 2007.  On the same day, the Managing Director of Horn Afrik Radio Station, Ali Imam Sharmarke was killed after his vehicle was blown up by a remote controlled landmine. His vehicle was part of a convoy that came from the burial of Mohad Ahmed Elmi.

These inhumane actions were surely premeditated, and hence there is need for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

There seems to be no end on the injustice meted out to journalists who cover conflicts.  Numerous questions have often surfaced as to whether there are any provisions that guarantee, the safety of journalists while on assignment at the war front or in times of civil strife. What is evident however is that most recently, two resolutions were passed, which all unequivocally condemned the killing of journalists at the war front and called for an end to impunity.

For the first time in its history, The United Nations Security Council on December 23, 2006 passed Resolution 1738, requiring armies and governments to protect journalists like other civilians in the war zone.  In its statement, the Council called for end to impunity and for the persecution of the killers of journalists.

Likewise, in 2007 the European Parliamentary Assembly recalled in Resolution 1535, the persistent "threats to the lives and freedom of expression  of journalists" and expressed its determination to set up a specific monitoring mechanism for identifying and  analyzing attacks on the lives  and freedom of expression of journalists.   Its recommendations called on the Committee of Ministers to:

     express its unequivocal condemnation of the attacks on journalists in Europe, following the declarations made  by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the most recent declarations after the murder of Hrant Dink;

 call on police and law enforcement authorities in member states to react swiftly to threats against journalists linked to their work and develop specific strategies for the protection of journalists who have been the targets of serious threats, without hindering their work;

instruct its competent steering committee to draw up policy guidelines on possible action by police and law enforcement authorities to protect journalists who are the targets of serious threats;

            establish a mechanism for identifying and analysing attacks against journalists and other serious violations of media freedom in Europe, with a view to developing policy recommendations to member states on how to better protect journalists and the freedom of the media, and report back regularly on this matter to the Assembly;

These recommendations were adopted by the Assembly on its 7th Sitting on January 25, 2007.

In relation to Africa, we are yet to see any form of such bold commitments from the African Union or the Pan African Parliament. It is worthy to note that the right to free speech is not among the major principles or criteria for good governance of the African Union (AU) nor is it a criterion for the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).  These serious negations by the AU are simply unacceptable. 

According to South African journalist, Raymond Louw, the need for a free press was originally included in the self assessment questionnaire but was however removed from the final draft.

I am fully convinced that any form of such commitment will be highly welcomed by the media fraternity in Africa, human rights defenders and civil society organizations.

Despite these guarantees, journalists have continued to be targeted at the war front the world over.

Reporting at Home: Report and be Murdered

In the days of old, it was often stated "Report and be damned".  However, in this present and complex milieu, this humble adage has been converted to "Report and be murdered" by individuals and syndicates who want to force the media down on its knees; individuals whose intensions are to dismember the media and finally bury it in an unmarked grave.  It is disheartening to reiterate, that more journalists actually die in peace time and in their countries of birth as compared to those that die far away from home on the battlefield.

Most often, in trying to get to the truth, journalists have been threatened and intimidated by self-centred individuals, business moguls and most especially governments.  These threats and intimidations are not always empty.  Individuals, business enterprises and governments who found themselves at the centre of serious corruption allegations, human rights abuses and sexual scandals, often want to conceal their negative practices from the eyes of the public.  Journalists who are privy to such information and believe that it  is the public's right to know about these corruption practices, are therefore the first targets of these sinister and inhumane "merchants of death".

In most instances, individuals, business enterprises and governments have tried to cajole and bribe journalists who possess valuable information. Where this has failed, gruesome criminal activities such as murder, arson attacks, torture into submission, disappearances, arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention have been employed by the powers that be in order to silence journalists who are bent on voicing out the truth.   In this regard, a number of prudent and outstanding journalists have lost their lives in defiance of the threats and intimidations, while others have disappeared without any form of trace and many more forced into exile or are jailed. 

In fact the journalists' litany of death at the home front encircles the entire world. They have all been simply killed for only one reason- for investigating and reporting the truth. "The suppression of the truth is the main reason for the unprecedented onslaught on the media through out the world," for it is only those who fear truth, who conspire to kill the truth.  However, if we continue to stand still and remain mute and allow TRUTH to be killed, then the whole world suffers.   According to Jennifer Windsor, "Assaults on the media," if left unchecked "are inevitably followed by assaults on other democratic institutions" which in the long run will only breed anarchy.

In Russia, at least 200 journalists have been killed in the past fifteen years. Anna Politkovskaya, renowned Russian journalist, had once stated "People sometimes pay with their lives for saying out right what they think."  Anna was herself shot by an unknown assassin in the lift of her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006.  Investigations into her death remain futile. Journalists Ivan Safronov, a former officer in the Russian armed forces, who covered military affairs for the local newspaper "Kommersant", was found dead after falling from the fifth floor of his apartment on March 2, 2007.  Foul play was most obvious, as most of his colleagues believed that he was murdered in relation to his work.  However, investigations into his death by the authorities stipulated that he committed "suicide".  

According to Enrique Santos Calderon, Editor -in- Chief of El Tiempo, which is one of the largest newspapers in Colombia, "79 journalists have been murdered in the past decade and 14 killed in 2007 alone. Kidnapping is rampant by the Leftist Guerrillas and the right wing paramilitary groups." Calderon added that at least one journalist is killed every month in Colombia, "usually near his home, in his office, in front of his computer or inside his living room or in front of his wife or children."

Africans Murdered at the Home Front

Concerning the African continent, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have recorded that between 1990 - 2006, 199 journalists were killed in Africa. Ever since that parcel bomb brutally murdered Dele Giwa, founder of NewsWatch Magazine in Nigeria, on October 19, 1986 the African continent have continued to witness an increase in the murder of her illustrious sons and daughters who earn their living by pushing the pen.

In 2007, fourteen journalists have been killed in the continent, Somalia accounting for eight of these killings. On January 28, 2008, Somalia yet again recorded another killing.  These sums up to 214 journalists who have been killed in the continent since 1990.  None of these killers have ever been brought to justice in the continent.

Nobert Zongo, publisher and editor of L'independent in Burkina Faso was assassinated on December 13, 1998. Zongo's only crime was that he was investigating the murder of a driver who had worked for the brother of the president, Blaise Campaore, and who was believed to have been tortured to dead.  Nobert Zongo's charred body was found 100 kilometers south of the capital, Ouagadougou.  An Independent Commission of Inquiry concluded that Nobert was killed for political reasons. However, the only person charged in relation to this case, Marcel Kafando, former head of the Presidential Guard, on July 19, 2006 saw all charges dropped against him by the prosecutors, "citing lack of evidence".  Hence, Nobert Zongo's killers are still at large.

In far away Mozambique, Carlos Cardoso, founder of the business daily newspaper, Metical, was shot dead in the capital, Maputo on November 22, 2000. Cardoso was specifically targeted for murder, simply because he was investigating a US$14 million fraud in relation to the privatisation of Mozambique's largest bank, Banco Commercial de Mozambique.  In the 2002 trial of six murder suspects, three of the suspects indicated that "Nyimpine Chissano, the son of Mozambican former President, Joaquim Chissano, paid for Cardoso's murder by a cheque.  Anibal dos Santos, a Portuguese citizen, who was said to have masterminded Cardoso's murder was convicted in "absentia" in 2003 after escaping from prison; a retrial in 2006 upheld his sentence to 30 years in prison. Nyimpine Chissano was charged with "joint moral authorship" of Cardoso's murder and various economic crimes by the Mozambican Public Prosecutor' office in May 2006.  The Mozambican News Agency (AIM) reported on May 11, 2006 an anonymous claim that an arrest warrant for Chissano had been rescinded following the intervention of former president Chissano and his wife.

On December 16, 2004 the co- proprietor and Editor of The Point Newspaper in The Gambia, Deyda Hydara, was shot and killed at the wheel of his car, while taking some of his staff home.  Investigations into his death by the Gambian Authorities prove futile as no one was identified as his murderer. Deyda's Killers like those of Giwa and Zongo, are also still at large.   Also in relation to The Gambia, Omar Barrow a young reporter with Sud FM Radio Station and a Red Cross Volunteer was shot and killed on April 10, 2000. According to the INSI reports, Omar was shot and killed while covering a students' demonstration. Likewise, nobody has been arrested or charged for his death to this day.

In war torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Franck Kangundu, a journalist with La Reference Plus, was shot dead by unidentified assassins who accosted him in his home in the capital, Kinshasa, on November 3, 2005.  His wife, Helene Mpaka, was also shot and killed. Their killers are still at large.

According to Journaliste en Danger (JED) a media watchdog organization based in the DRC, Kangundu offered his assassins money and his car but they replied "We are sent to kill you." His mobile phone was however collected by the killers after he was shot and killed. 

Similarly in the DRC, Louis Bapuwa Muamba, was shot and killed on July 7, 2006.   According to the IFJ, three unidentified gunmen broke into Muamba's home and shot him twice and abandoned him to bleed to death. His mobile phone was also taken away from him.

In Sudan, Muhammed Taha, editor of Al Wifiq was killed for his critical views.  After escaping an assassination attempt in 2000, Taha was kidnapped in 2006. His body was decapitated and thrown in the street in Khartoum. Nobody has been arrested or charged for his death.

In Zimbabwe, Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman and former employee of the state owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings, was found dead at Darwendale, about 80 Km west of the capital, Harare, on March 31, 2007.   According to the IFJ, Chikomba was found dead at Darwendale, two days after he was abducted from his house in Glenview by a group of men.   He was apparently tortured to death.

IFJ reports stated that Chikomba was suspected of having leaked the footage of the demonstrations and the images of the brutalised opposition leaders and activists to the Western media. His killers are still at large.

Such inhumane brutality has led INSI Director, Rodney Pinder, to remark that in many countries, murder has become "the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome reporting".  In the same vein, Global news Director for BBC World, Richard Sambrook said "Killing a journalist is virtually risk free".  But should this be the reality in our world? 

The truth is that those who kill journalists have continued to enjoy IMPUNITY in its most crude form. "This flagrant impunity feeds the unceasing violence against the press. These unpunished crimes lay bare the impotence of the "state(s) involved and show the incompetence of the justice system in these countries that have not been able to sentence even one of the masterminds behind the murders of more than "1000 journalists, the world over, in the last ten years"."  These killers from Russia to Iraq, Colombia to Mexico and The Gambia to Zimbabwe have remained invincible and untouchable, but only temporarily, no matter how long it takes. 

The IFJ would like to reiterate it stance here and now, that impunity has no place in any democracy. The wilful killing of journalists anywhere constitutes a crime a very serious crime.  The civilized world can no longer sit idle and watch while its valuable sons and daughters continued to be murdered with impunity.   This inhumanity and silent tsunami that has been building up against the media for more than two decades must be halted once and for all.  The perpetrators of these heinous crimes MUST be brought to justice sooner rather than later.

The IFJ is deeply concerned about the continued flagrant violation of the right to life of journalists.  Thus in July 2007, the IFJ launched its "All African Journalists Out of Jail Campaign" in Ghana prior to the African Union Conference. This campaign is specifically aimed at putting pressure on governments that have imprisoned journalists on libel charges to release them unconditionally and without further delay.  The Campaign will also focus its direction on the issue of impunity in an attempt to bring to justice those who wilfully perpetrate heinous crimes against journalists.

In relation to the Campaign Against Impunity, the IFJ is persistently calling on governments to conduct credible and independent investigations into the murder of journalists in their respective countries and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. Our Colleagues Are Still AWAITING JUSTICE.

Imprisoned and Exiled Journalists

There is need to mention that the imprisonment of journalists under very dehumanising conditions also constitute a great danger to their lives.    Defamation charges, most especially libel and slander remain as the core excuses for the imprisonment of journalists, most especially in Africa.  There has also been a rise in Africa, of sedition charges and other forms of anti-terrorist legislations.

Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to top the list as the countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists.  Following the violent demonstrations after the November 2005 elections in Ethiopia, at least 17 journalists were arrested and most of them charged with treason. Among them was the Publisher and Manager of Satanaw newspaper, Serkalem Fasil, who was actually pregnant at the time of her arrest, and gave birth in prison.   A handful of these journalists were released in 2007, but at least some of them are still languishing in jail.

In Eritrea, journalism and the media landscape continued to be very gloomy.  Fifteen journalists are currently held in Eritrea without trial for more than 6 years in secret detention centres, while all the private press houses have been forced to close down.  Issac Dawit, Eritrean journalist, was among those arrested on September 23, 2001. He was last seen in November 2005, apparently receiving treatment in a hospital.

In Niger, RFI correspondent and Director of Saraouniya Radio Station, Moussa Kaka  was arrested and has been jailed in Niger for his "suspected links with the Tuareg - led rebels.   Moussa had been in contact with the rebels in the course of his professional duty as journalist. He conversation with the rebels was taped by the authorities. Despite the fact that the magistrate presiding over the case has refuse to accept as evidence the conversation tapes, (which is the only so called "evidence" that the government has against him) Kaka is still languishing in jail, despite the fact that the court did not find him guilty of the charges brought against him.

Interestingly enough, Ethiopia and Eritrea also have the highest number of journalists in exile in the continent. Somalia, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and The Gambia have also been identified as countries that have registered a significant number of exiled journalists within the past few years.

The IFJ "Journalists Out of Jail Campaign" vehemently condemns the jailing of journalists and called for their unconditional release.

The Way Forward

It will be unforgiving, to issue a lecture of this magnitude, with all the grave concerns over the deaths of our colleagues without focusing the rays of our beams on the way forward.

Let us therefore reemphasise that the media plays a crucial role in national development. Thus, journalists need to be protected in order for them to work effectively.  Therefore:

Governments the world over, MUST respect the commitments that they have untaken to defend freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.

Civil Society MUST keep constant pressure on legislator, judges, public prosecutors, legal officers and law enforcement agents to prevent impunity.

Journalists' rights to protect their sources must be respected by the law. In addition to this, libel and all other forms of defamation laws should be decriminalise with immediate effect.

The World financial institutions, most especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should consider including the respect for the freedom of expression as conditionality for assistance to any nation state.

There is an urgent need for parliaments around the world, most especially African parliaments to pass a Freedom of Information Bill.

FOI is of crucial importance to the IFJ. The IFJ will continue to reiterate its stance on the need for the passing of Freedom of Information Bills in the continent's parliaments.  Good Governance is centred on the principles of accountability and transparency. This, however, cannot be achieved anywhere, if information that is vital for the public interest continues to be hoarded by governments. It is a major challenge for the African media and the Developing World in general to ensure that they lobby their governments to adopt Access to Information Bills.  The citizens of the world have the right to know, and journalists who seek for information to report on events that are of public interest, should be provided with the details they seek for, in order to inform, educate and empower their public.  

The right to investigate and report freely without any form of hindrance lies at the core of quality journalism. 


Despite the fact that journalists are no doubt endangered species in today's complex world, let me quickly add that we are the only group of endangered species that will never face extinction, no matter the hostile conditions in which we continue to work.   Journalism will surely pass the test of time. We have indeed gone far and had already crossed the Rubicon; however we cannot simply rest on our oars while our colleagues continue to wait for Justice.

Justice will surely come sooner than later.