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Horn of Africa

Media woes in a region beset by conflict

A report by the International Media Support (IMS), a Danish based organisation that supports the media in war torn countries, highlights the plight of journalists working in the war ravaged Horn of Africa
Zachary Ochieng

Routine use of hostile language against others in media or mass communication fuel ethnic, racial, religious, sectarian and other social tensions and conflicts. This is according to a report by the International media Support (IMS) a Danish based international organisation that assists the media in areas ravaged by conflict. Titled "Conflict, peace and the media in the horn of Africa", the report is based on the IMS mission to the capitals of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, which took place from 9-18 December, 2002. The report was released last month.

According to the report, Government restrictions on media access to conflict zones; poor or slanted news coverage of neighbouring countries and the domination of government perspective in shaping public opinion on conflicts hinder the development of peace. The essence of state control translates into the use of state-owned media by governments as instruments of propaganda, authoritarian or dictatorial rule.

The report notes that in terms of pluralism, Somalia has progressed further than the rest of the region. In Mogadishu, there is both private broadcasting and newspaper businesses.

For Sudan, the report notes that Khartoum has about 15 Arabic dailies, one English-language daily in Khartoum oriented to southern interests, six sports papers, less number of so-called social publications, some four entertainment tabloids, and a small number of youth publications.

"The independent press is young in Ethiopia, and it struggles to survive politically and economically", says the report. Advertising revenue may not be easily accessible to all the press.

In terms of media legislation, the Mogadishu-based Transitional National Government (TNG) in October 2002 attempted to impose a media law aimed primarily at curbing the independence and freedom of the struggling, growing media in Mogadishu. It was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition by a coalition of civil society groups, including a strike by the young media houses and associations, and protests supported by the lawyer's society and others.

Theoretically, the law in Sudan provides freedom for the media to cover any event or issue without undue hindrance. But the Emergency Act of 1999, given justification by the war with the south supersedes and undermines the freedoms in the press law provisions. Direct censorship and interference by state security has been rampant even in recent months. Arrests and interrogation of media professionals, confiscation of entire print runs and other obstruction are a regular occurrence.

As regards access to information, the report notes that the governments in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia deal with information as they deem fit. As with most parts of Africa, there is no legislation in any of these countries that guarantees free access to information held by government.

The report adds that access to officials on a day-to-day basis is not open. In Ethiopia, for example, until two years ago, the independent press was not permitted to enter the Parliament. To date, the independent press have no access to the Prime Minister or his office. They are denied access to official press conferences.

According to the report, the Sudan press is not that restricted from formal official functions and access to institutions such as the Parliament. However, they are not so free to publish what they report from any event or function.

As regards media associations, the report notes that the organisation of professional associations or unions of journalists and media workers generally is weak in the region. This has a lot to do with the long years of state monopoly of media, the young age of the independent press in Ethiopia and Somalia, and perhaps as much, with the general repression of civil society development.

The East Africa Media Institute (EAMI) is about the strongest attempt at forming a regional organization of journalists, but it has not been as active and influential as the media could have wanted. Though it has an office now in Kampala, Uganda, - having moved from Nairobi - its structures seem still to be in their formative stages. The most vibrant section of EAMI is the Somalia chapter (EAMI-S). In Ethiopia and Sudan there are state-sponsored journalists associations that may group state media journalists. According to the report, Sudan has no independent journalists association that groups all or most professionals, such as a union, an editor's guild, or a media rights advocacy organization.

While acknowledging efforts being made by media people to have a strong, independent professional association, the report notes that this has not evolved into an organization set up with advocacy and defence of its members' rights as its objectives.

The report notes that strategic support for media in the Horn of Africa has so far not been forthcoming from the international community, in ways which recognise the potential impact of media on conflict resolution. There are noticeable exceptions - UNESCO in particular has provided support for media initiatives for years - but in general media has not been a focal point of international efforts in conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa.

However, it notes that a number of international bodies (UN agencies, embassies, NGOs, church-groups) engage in ad hoc media support in Ethiopia, Sudan or Somalia. This translates into training events for journalists, provision of programming for local radios in Somalia, seminars for journalists on specific themes or support for specific media like 'Radio Voice of Hope', a long-standing radio project supported by Dutch church-groups and broadcasting from Uganda into Southern Sudan.

According to the report, one of the most difficult problems for press freedom and the growth of the independent media in the region is the political culture of intolerance and disrespect for popular participation in public affairs discourse. That is, the culture of political leadership in the countries has been so dominated by a blindfolded intolerance of expression of viewpoints different from those of authority that it has become a natural reflex of people in authority to perceive contrary viewpoints as opposition and subversive.

The report highlights the case of Somalia, where the threat of armed violence confronts media in Mogadishu everyday. In the absence of a state and its institutions for justice and citizens protection, the threats are carried out with impunity, and usually by one or another warlord's militia.

The report notes that the individual journalist remains vulnerable to physical attacks. EAMI-S estimates that about 48 journalists have been killed since the Somalia war erupted. (This includes local and foreign journalists.)

In Sudan, as in Ethiopia, there seems to be some shift in method from the more crude traditional method of physical repression and widespread arrests to a pretension at due process of the law. This has not translated, however, into a sense of real security. Censorship and threats are still commonplace in Khartoum, and the security apparatus still often questions media professionals.

In Ethiopia, the report estimates that within the past seven years or so, about 200 journalists had been jailed or charged on all manner of offences. Ethiopia, until recently held a record for arresting more journalists than any other African state, but this has now changed very rapidly.

In terms of legal aid, the report notes that in general, most journalists in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia have relatively little access to legal assistance when they clash with official censorship, allegations of libel, new press laws or other legal obstacles.

In Somalia EAMI-S has good relations with the lawyers association in Mogadishu, and can receive support from members. But the good relationship needs to be transformed into a formal structure and program of defence aid where cases are directed.

In Ethiopia, where the number of court cases is mushrooming, most lawyers are not keen to defend journalists, and only few journalists and media have the means to hire lawyers. Only one lawyer, himself formerly a journalist, has shown consistency in defending journalists in court.

The report also highlights inadequate professional standards. It notes that political instability and the negative effects on institution building have hampered the growth of professional standards and the ethos of professionalism in journalism in the region. In relation to the rest, the Sudan media have been more resilient and maintained some level of continuity. Yet, in the North its standards have also suffered considerably from censorship and repression and resulting 'brain-drain'

In Ethiopia, the majority of journalists in the independent sector have had no or very little formal training. A few years ago, the government initiated training programs that were closed to journalists in the private sector. Some have now benefited from ad hoc training programs organized by international donor agencies and by local media development NGOs such as the Panos Institute, and even at the Unity College.

The report blames censorship and other controls on lack of professionalism. It notes that the weak professional standards have implications, though not an excuse, for some of the basis for governmental repression. Inadvertent slips could lead to libel and or to inaccuracies that might provide excuses for attacks and or seemingly justifiable court cases.

According to the report, several factors limit the economic strength of the independent media in the region. In all three countries, war has ravaged the economies to the extent that the southern half of Sudan has only limited economic organization, and Ethiopia's status among the world's poorest only gets consolidated. The implications for press business are sordid indeed. The generally low business environment translates into a small advertising industry that hardly satisfies all the publications, even without state interference in distribution of advertising sales.

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