A Ticket To Hell
That's what powerful reporting can mean for Africa's embattled journalists, who face harsh reprisals from government and rebel factions in many of the continent's countries.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
IN ZIMBABWE, ROY CHATO wrote the kinds of stories about political upheaval that in the United States might have made him a contender for an Investigative Reporters & Editors award. Instead, his hard-hitting exposés for a Sunday weekly won him a trip early this year to a torture chamber, where he was stripped and beaten, his head held underwater until he was on the brink of death.
In a nearby room, his editor, Mark Chavunduka, lay naked in a blood-spattered cell, writhing in pain as electrical wires were attached to his genitals. Their "crime" was twofold: publication of a story about a failed military coup, which the government denied, and a refusal to name their sources.
In Africa, doing serious journalism can be a ticket to hell.
Yet a quiet group of heroes, working in one of the world's most lethal regions for the media, continues to uncover the kind of information that would make the likes of Bob Woodward or Christiane Amanpour proud. The details of their torment--brutal interrogations, isolation in filthy cells, medieval torture, even death--seem more suited to a Stephen King novel than to the everyday lives of the working press.
Often, the journalists are trapped between brutal rebel armies and repressive governments, each camp viewing them as the enemy because of their probing into such areas as official corruption, drug trafficking and atrocities against civilians committed during wildfire wars that have swept the region.
For some of these media practitioners, coping with an undercurrent of psychological terror has become as routine as meeting deadline. They know that by delving into coup plotting in Zimbabwe or gun running in Congo, they can wind up strapped to a table at the mercy of a sadist. It is the price they pay for covering what one African scholar calls "warlord politics."
In January, a trail was fresh with journalists' blood in Sierra Leone. Seven were murdered after guerrilla fighters from the Revolutionary United Front stormed Freetown, the capital of the country. Four others remain missing. A survivor of the attacks, Mustapha Sessay of the Standard Times newspaper, was slashed by a machete and had his right eye gouged out.
Myles Tierney, an American producer working for Associated Press Television News, was killed in the same country when his vehicle was hit by automatic weapon fire. Ian Stewart, AP bureau chief in West Africa, was shot in the head but survived. In February, pro-government forces murdered the news editor of the newspaper African Champion after they accused him of being a rebel collaborator, a charge he denied.
"It was a campaign of terror. It doesn't get much worse than this," says Kakuna Kerina, Africa program director for the International League for Human Rights. "We have received reports that the rebels entered Freetown with a list of journalists to be eliminated."
This spring, the Committee to Protect Journalists came to the rescue of four journalists who had been threatened and harassed for their work. The group brought the journalists to Ghana, Canada and the United States.
In June, AJR interviewed scores of editors and reporters on the frontlines of the war against the press in African "hot zones," where journalists refer to themselves as "an endangered species." They were asked why they continue to place personal safety at risk to cover news on the poverty- and war-scarred continent, and how they cope with the constant threat of reprisal, sometimes at the hands of undisciplined rebel armies known to commit grotesque atrocities. Who comes to their aid when they are held without charges in overcrowded prisons rife with scurvy, tuberculosis and malaria?
Beyond the danger, the journalists face formidable challenges. Many of them lack formal training, are poorly equipped and earn meager salaries. In some places, copy is pounded out on manual typewriters or handwritten and carried to a typist. At smaller publications, a rented computer or a laptop is considered a luxury.
Due to the high illiteracy rates, circulation tends to be low and advertising revenue scarce for weeklies and dailies. Independent TV and radio stations often are saddled with high licensing fees and state taxes. During the worst of times, journalists have been known to work without pay or invest scant savings to keep independent media afloat.
Yet, the mood was feisty and upbeat among the 60 media professionals gathered at a resort on the Atlantic Ocean in The Gambia in June. At times, discussion at the West African Journalists Association conference centered on topics common to newshounds everywhere: diversifying coverage, improving copy, increasing revenue.
There also were chilling moments when journalists shared horrors that have become commonplace under certain regimes. Some, like Abdulai Bayraytay, 28, of Sierra Leone, began paying the price early in their careers.
H IS EYES, THE COLOR of rich coffee beans, widen in renewed dread as he places himself back in the claustrophobic, waterless cell crammed with 19 prisoners who defecated in a single bucket and endured insects swarming over their bodies as they slept on the floor.
The journalist winces as he relives the torments: the blazing white light that sent stabs of pain past his eyeballs into his brain when it was flashed on during the night; the periodic grillings and floggings; the constant worry that his food would be poisoned in "that place of total misery," as Bayraytay calls the prison in Freetown where he was confined for 21 days in 1993.
The former student activist knew the risks when his newspaper, the New Breed, published an exposé charging the military leader in power with smuggling diamonds. He had seen other journalists hunted like jungle prey by ironfisted dictatorships in the country of 4.6 million, where coups had become part of the political fabric.
As the story hit the streets that October 13, Bayraytay, then 22, and other members of the staff went into hiding. A group of political leaders, considered disruptive elements by the state, had been executed for allegedly plotting a coup.
Now it is June 1999 and Bayraytay speaks softly as a ceiling fan whirs overhead in the sultry hotel veranda on a stretch of flaxen beaches in The Gambia, where he is reliving the first--and most terrible--of three arrests.
It was the need to find food, he recalls, that drove him out of his safe haven in Freetown in 1993. Outside it was the kind of tropical day when the pungent scent of overripe mangoes permeates African marketplaces, and women in long robes cover their faces against swirls of dust.
Suddenly, the armed thugs were on him, hurling insults and demanding identification. First they found the tape recorder, then the press credentials that confirmed their catch. Bayraytay remembers his consciousness dimming as rifle butts slammed into his kidneys and spine. He was shoved handcuffed into a waiting vehicle.
An interrogator threatened that he would "end up six feet under" if he didn't reveal the sources of the diamond smuggling investigation. When he refused, Bayraytay was put in a cell with 18 others, including seven other journalists, one of them his managing editor.
"I thought we would die, because this was the height of military rule," Bayraytay recalls. "Those in power knew they could do anything."
For weeks he was held incommunicado, without formal charges. During that time, Bayraytay's relatives bribed guards to deliver small amounts of food--sardines, bread, cheese and his favorite, Quaker Oats--to help keep him healthy. He managed to borrow a book, "The Africans," by American journalist David Lamb, which he calls a "great inspiration."
Then, as suddenly as it began, his imprisonment was over. A guard entered the cell one day and told him he was free to go. Instead of joy, the words sparked raw terror.
"I truly believed they were going to make a pretense of releasing me, then use it as an excuse to kill me, making it appear that nothing happened in prison," says Bayraytay, who was arrested again for his work as a political columnist in 1994 and 1995.
The other journalists eventually were charged with "sedition and false publication," found guilty and fined. Bayraytay speculates he might have been spared because he was not part of the newspaper's hierarchy. Students from his alma mater, he says, petitioned loudly on his behalf.
Then he adds a kicker: Julius Spencer, the managing editor who shared the cell and once was hailed as a champion of press freedom in Sierra Leone, was appointed information minister by the current regime. In 1998, he ordered the arrest of correspondents for publishing news on the fighting without clearing stories in advance with authorities.
That effectively banned war reporting, according to Claudia McElroy, CPJ's Africa program coordinator. "Spencer is a sellout and a nightmare," says the former reporter who has filed out of Sierra Leone for the BBC, Voice of America, Reuters and other media outlets.
His former boss has become "an enemy of press freedom," Bayraytay agrees. And the journalist makes grim predictions for the media in his homeland, rich in diamond fields and steeped in bloody coups.
In June, he stressed that if the rebels took over or negotiated to share power, "Journalists will be in great danger. Some of us will have to leave or die."
The unthinkable happened in July when rebel factions brokered an agreement for a share of cabinet ministries. Members of the same guerrilla bands that have left a trail of terror will be coming to Freetown under the peace accord.
Their horrific deeds during the eight-year war, documented by a 1999 Human Rights Watch report, have a pornographic tinge: rape and sexual enslavement as well as victims injected with acid, adversaries disemboweled and their hearts and other vital organs consumed. There are reports of civilians forced to participate in their own mutilation, ordered to choose which hand, arm or finger is to be chopped off.
The journalists attacked during the January onslaught, when the rebels came close to capturing Freetown, were burned alive, hacked with machetes and shot. When gunmen came in search of Bayraytay, relatives convinced them he had left the country. Instead, he was in hiding.
Frank Kposowa, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, notes, "The rebels made it quite clear that they would make us pay. They were trying to shoot and kill their way to power." If the rebels return to Freetown, he says, "None of us will be safe."
Why doesn't Bayraytay, who freelances and does radio broadcasts for the Campaign for Good Governance, pack up and leave the danger zone? "Journalism goes beyond writing a story for a byline," he says. "It's based on what you are challenging, how you make your contribution to democracy by what you report.
"You expose injustice and advocate for human rights. It is a mission," Bayraytay adds, as he walks back into the conference hall to join a panel on the shaky status of the press in his country.
B EYOND THE EXTREME violence in places like Sierra Leone, journalists face a myriad of roadblocks. A 1998 CPJ report concluded that in some "new African democracies," such as Uganda, Ghana and Namibia, military and presidential decrees and colonial-era sedition and criminal libel laws are used to control the media.
Africa experts view this as another indication that the new generation of leaders might not be committed to the same tenets of democracy as in the West. Writing for Foreign Policy journal, Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed these new regimes believe "in a mixture of strong political control, limited popular participation and economic liberalization that allows for a strong state role in regulating the market."
Ottaway went on to explain that these heads of state rose to power by winning civil wars. Consequently, "they believe in the importance of force, strong organization and good strategy," none of which bodes well for journalists.
In some countries, like Zimbabwe, politicians create a de facto one-party state where self-serving campaign laws, crackdowns on the opposition and strictly controlled state-run media tighten their grip on power. As the CPJ report indicates, they also turn to draconian laws to rein in the independent media.
Early this year, when Zimbabwe authorities wanted to punish a high-profile editor and his senior investigative reporter for a story about an abortive coup, they unearthed a 1960 law passed by British rulers during the racist regime of Ian Smith. Zimbabwe then was known as Rhodesia, and the law was designed to silence journalists critical of the white minority government.
Mark Chavunduka was having his morning bath when the phone rang around 7:15 on Tuesday, January 12. The caller, polite and conciliatory, wondered if the editor might stop by military headquarters on his way to the newsroom to discuss a lead story in Zimbabwe's Standard headlined: "Senior Army Officers Arrested--Attempted Coup Foiled."
On the way, Chavunduka, 34, dialed the newspaper's managing director to brief him on the meeting. His boss was leery of his going alone. The two agreed to stay in touch by cell phone. Soon after arriving, Chavunduka was ushered into the office of the director of military intelligence. The issue was so serious, he was told, that the state needed to know the identity of the paper's sources in the military.
By 9:30 a.m., the editor had been escorted to a military barracks outside the Zimbabwean capital of Harare and found himself surrounded by army officers, demanding to know who had talked to his reporter. When Chavunduka refused to provide names, a Defense Ministry official ordered him detained until he decided to cooperate. That night, he covered himself with newspapers as he slept on a barren floor.
The first physical assault occurred on January 14. In an article for BBC Focus on Africa, Chavunduka wrote: "I was forced to look directly into a powerful beam of light placed 10 cm from my eyes, in a dark room, while answering their questions. When I could no longer stand the pain and moved my head, I was beaten with clenched fists and booted feet. This went on for several hours until midnight."
On January 16, handcuffed and blindfolded, he was driven to a building 45 minutes away and led down two flights of stairs into what he describes as a "cold storage room." As his eyes adjusted to the light, he recoiled in horror.
"There were blood stains on the wall. I was told to undress, and then asked what I could see on the walls," he recalls. "When I said I could see blood stains, I was told that those people had died, and that my blood was no more special than that on the walls.... They said the president already signed my death warrant."
Then the real torture began.
His head repeatedly was thrust deep into a canvas bag full of water until he was near suffocation. His legs were chained to his hands and electric charges were applied, sending jolts through his body. There were times, he recalls, when he implored his tormentors to kill him.
Afterward, he was taken to the barracks, led to a room and ordered to open the door. "I did, and I saw Ray [Choto, who wrote the piece] sitting naked, bruised and swollen. They had been using the light beam on his eyes, beating him when he moved his head," Chavunduka says.
The next day, the two were driven, separately, to the torture chamber with the blood on the walls for what was to be their worst of it.
As described by Chavunduka: "The electrocution, to all parts of the naked body, was terribly severe, and the water suffocation reached unimaginable levels of horror." Soon after that session, the two appeared in court and were released on bail.
In the storm of publicity that followed, the military was widely criticized by the Zimbabwean courts for seizing the journalists. The minister of defense and his officials faced contempt charges for defying three orders to free them.
In March, with the aid of Amnesty International, the two journalists flew to London for treatment at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. "At first, we were scared that the people who tortured us would detain us again. Being away from home erased that initial fear," Choto, 37, told AJR. "But we can't override the fact that the state has its own mission, and they can do whatever they want with us."
How does he cope with that reality? "If you are a true journalist, you have to continue soldiering on," Choto says. "You can't be scared off by threats from the state and things like that."
Chavunduka, who will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University this fall, calls the danger an occupational hazard. "Our view," he says, "is that there is a job, and it has to be done." Upon his release after the nine-day detention, he issued the following statement: "The situation is a difficult one, but we are determined to continue to seek out the truth, expose corruption, and stand up to power-drunk dictators."
Neither journalist cracked under pressure. The sources for the coup story remain secret.
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