Journalists caught in the crosshairs, dissent brutally quashed, and big wins for African creatives and media stalwarts

Traditionally a month to emphasise safety and justice for journalists, November certainly focused attention on the precarious conditions journalists across Africa have to contend with.

Just days before organisations across the continent marked the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists (IDEI), the family of journalism student Pelumi Onifade found his body at a mortuary in Ikorodu, Lagos – the capital of Nigeria.

He had been reported missing a week prior to the discovery.

According to a Media Rights Agenda (MRA) report, the 20-year-old Onifade was “covering the scene of a mob raid at a government facility for Gboah TV, where he was serving as an intern.” He was bundled into a police van even though he was wearing a jacket clearly identifying him as a member of the press.

Ayode Longe, the director of programming at MRA, said: “Onifade’s death is one too many and is particularly ironic he was arrested while covering protests that had engulfed the country as a result of police brutality and extra-judicial killings. MRA is demanding that Nigeria’s Federal government conduct an investigation into Onifade’s death, compensate his family and ensure an apology is given to them by government and the police.

Elsewhere on the continent, journalist Ntsoaki Motaung was injured when he was shot in Lesotho a few days after IDEI, while covering the youth-led  #BachaShutdown protests. Two other journalists – Relebohile Moyeye Sebuti and Moliwe Thobei – were also detained but later released.

Journalists under fire

Protect Journalists, Protect the Truth – the theme for this year’s IDEI – has never been more pertinent for journalists on the African continent.

From Nigeria to Ethiopia to Uganda, journalists are being caught in the crosshairs as they try to report on protests, armed conflict, military insurgencies, corruption and elections.

Evidence of the increasing escalation of attacks on the media is provided by the #PeoplePower2020 annual report by CIVICUS which lists the detention of journalists as one of the top 5 violations of civic freedoms in Africa.

The onslaught on the media has been compounded by the misuse of COVID-19 regulations to prevent journalists from reporting on crucial events, as well as by the exacerbation of the culture of impunity due to the lack of political will to investigate assaults and deaths of journalists.

These factors are highlighted by the 2020 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which indicates that 21 African countries appear in red or black as “journalists continue to lose their lives in Africa and the killers generally go unpunished”. This observation is underscored by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Global Impunity Index, which cites Somalia as “the world’s worst country for the fifth year in a row when it comes to prosecuting murderers of journalists.” South Sudan and Nigeria also feature prominently on CPJ’s index.

Squashing dissent

The onslaught against citizens is equally unprecedented. Regulations imposed since the onset of the global pandemic have been exploited by authorities to block legitimate expressions of dissent. The findings of the CIVICUS #PeoplePower2020 report launched on 8 December reflects this narrowing of civic space. The report details how citizens have been killed during protests in several countries, including Ivory Coast, the DRC, Niger, Liberia, South Africa, Namibia, Mali, Guinea, Ethiopia and most recently in Nigeria and Uganda.

The determination of leaders to hang onto power through the use of lethal force is difficult to align to this year’s African Union theme: The Year of Silencing the Guns.

On the contrary the guns are being used to silence dissenters across the continent.

Conflict in Tigray

At the core of the domestic conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray is a power struggle, an impromptu election and a push for political reform, all of which have been exacerbated by deep ethnic tensions that are a long-standing element of Ethiopia’s political and social landscape.

Since the start of Ethiopia’s military offensive against the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front on November 9, Tigray residents have suffered from a strategically planned information blackout affecting mobile, landline and internet communications. Journalists were also not allowed into the area. Not only does this blackout make it difficult to report on the conflict, it also makes it difficult to verify the information coming out of Tigray.

Reversing much of the progress made on media reforms since President Abiy Ahmed Ali came into power in 2018, Ethiopia’s government has rolled back significantly on press freedom over the last year. At least six journalists, including Medihane Ekubamichael, Haftu Gebreegziabher, Tsegaye Hadush, Bekalu Alamrew, Udi Mussa and Abreha Hagos were detained, accused of inciting revolt and being linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as they are all ethnic Tigrayans. While the charges remain unclear the case has been adjourned to 14 December. Ekubamichael, the editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, one of the main English-language weeklies, tested positive for COVID-19 and was subsequently released on 9 December.

Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that it is “gravely concerned about the current armed conflict unfolding in the Tigray region”.

Museveni’s tenacious grip

Fearful of the fact that he may be losing his tenacious grip on power, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his government’s relentless and vicious campaign compelled opposition candidate Robert Kyagulyanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine to temporarily suspend his electoral campaign.

“He’s been arrested multiple times, seen dozens of his supporters killed or injured by Ugandan authorities and… had his security personnel and car shot at by rubber bullets and tear gas to stop him from attending a rally,” according to Africa Report.

African Union Special Rapporteurs condemned “the excessive, abusive and disproportionate use of force against peaceful demonstrators and all other human rights violations that occurred and were widely reported in the domestic and international press.”

Journalists reporting on the violence, following the arrest of Bobi Wine as he tried to campaign ahead of Uganda’s scheduled January elections, were also not spared from attacks by the police.

Ashraf Kasirye, a freelance journalist with Uganda Radio Network, was pepper-sprayed by police while taking pictures. On the same day Balikowa Samuel, a journalist with City FM, was arrested while he was covering Bobi Wine’s arrest. A van belonging to an NBS television crew was vandalised. One of their bags containing a laptop, phones and a charger was taken by the attackers.

Canadian journalists Margaret Evans and Lily Martin and videographer Jean-Francois Bisson attached to Canadian public broadcaster, CBC News were arrested and detained for 10 hours by Ugandan authorities before being deported. This is despite having followed all the protocols required by foreign journalists wanting to report in the country.

In all, RSF reports 17 press freedom violations in Uganda since the start of November, including “seven attacks, four arbitrary arrests of journalists, and many cases of their being obstructed.”

African creatives and media stalwarts honoured

November wasn’t all bad news. It was also a month of big wins for African creatives, who were recognized for their artistry, and media stalwarts for their outstanding work.

Master KG’s global phenomenon Jerusalema which sparked a global dance challenge during the COVID-19 lockdown earned him the African Act of the Year Award at the European Music Awards (EMAs).

Another social media star who rose to fame during the pandemic was Kenyan teenage comedian Elsa Mujimbo who was voted Africa Social Star of 2020 at the E! People’s Choice Awards.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Women’s Prize for Fiction honoured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with a special edition statuette for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Her novel was voted the best book among the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction Awards in its 25-year history.

A few weeks later, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Prize 2020 was awarded to Ngozi Adichie for championing women’s rights and inspiring people around the world in their pursuit of freedom.

Kenyan environmental journalist Geoffrey Kamadi’s detailed report on the reduced outflow of fresh water into the Indian Ocean and the subsequent effect on the basin’s biodiversity and adjacent communities earned him the gold award in the Science Reporting – Small Outlet category in the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award.

Tanzanian photographer Calvin Kulaya was the winner of The Other Hundred Healers photo-essay competition that shares stories of people working on healing or supporting their communities through selfless acts of caring, kindness and compassion. Kulaya focused on Doris Mollel from Dar es Salaam who provided 300 families impacted by COVID-19 with Ramadan gift boxes of food.

Publisher of Nigeria’s Premium Times, Dapo Olorunyomi, was honoured with this year’s Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award 2020 alongside Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam and Mohammed Mosaed from Iran. Oly was hailed for his courageous journalism spanning more than two decades, amidst threats, arrests and harassment from the State. He is widely acknowledged as a trusted and fierce defender of freedom of expression in Nigeria.

To mark International Men’s Day on 19 November, Amnesty International Kenya paid tribute to 14 Kenyan #MenofAmnesty who protect, promote and fight for human rights.

Those honoured included Javan Paul, aka Java the Poet; community organiser Andrew ‘ Zamazama’ Okolla; youth mentor Amani ‘Toure’ Daudi; lawyers Stephen Mwangi, Demas Kiprono, Muthuri Kathure, Wilson Kinyua; author Kennedy Odede; journalists John-Allan Namu, John Githongo; medical doctor Dr. Chibhanzi Mwachonda; entrepreneur Joram Mwinamo; environmentalist David Oyanga and one of Amnesty International’s longest serving members, Charles Omote.


Nigerian journalist Kufre Carter had his defamation case thrown out by a Magistrate’s court in Akwa Ibom state, after the prosecution failed to provide a witness. Carter endured a month-long detention by State Security Services, for allegedly defaming a state government official in a WhatsApp audio file that went viral. 

The CEO and owner of popular television station Astaan TV, Abdimanan Yusuf, who has been held in custody since July 2020, was fined the equivalent of 200 Euros, sentenced to 5 years in prison and his station closed under unclear circumstances in Somaliland. One of the many accusations made against him is that he entered the country illegally. According to Reporters Without Borders, the head of the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA) Yahye Mohamed was adamant that: “this is completely false, because he has a proper entry visa which we have seen.”

A shift in political leadership following the February 2020 presidential election in Guinea Bissau has not translated into transformation of the media landscape or an expansion of media freedom and freedom of expression. Deeply concerned by a spate of attacks on journalists and media outlets, the Media Foundation for West Africa is calling on the authorities to “take steps to stem the tide of repression.”

“Guinea Bissau, like many developing countries, faces very daunting challenges with economic development, democratic consolidation and national cohesion. The government needs the support of the media to be able to mobilise the population for a successful fight against these challenges,” points out the MFWA.

In Nigeria, veteran journalist and publisher of Power Steering magazine, Tom Uhia was finally released on 9 November after having spent 30 days in detention. While in detention he fell ill and is reported to have been rushed to hospital. The 72-year-old Uhia was arrested on 13 October following a complaint by Minister of State for Power Goddy Jedy Agba over Power Steering’s report on his alleged involvement in corruption, fraud, and theft, according to CPJ.

Also in Nigeria, the country’s first film to positively portray a romantic relationship between two women is set to be released online on 10 December to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Producer Pamela Adie and her team opted to screen Ife on LGBT website for a nominal fee, after the Nigerian Censorship Board threatened to sanction it if screened in theatres. Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Nigeria and same sex marriages are illegal.

Sudan‘s joint civilian and military transitional government amended its 2018 Law on Combating Cybercrimes making it more punitive than it was under the repressive regime of former leader Omar Al Bashir. The amendments include the imposition of stiffer sentences for disinformation and provides for a commissioner appointed by the army with the mandate to sue online critics of the military.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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