The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) revealed in their prison census report for 2023 that Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Cameroon are the most harsh countries for journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report outlined that the number of journalists in prison increased from 37 in 2022 to 47 on December 1, 2023, indicating a worsening situation in the region. The CPJ also recognised Nigeria as one of the Sub-Saharan African nations where journalists encountered situations such as brutality, imprisonment, assaults, and harassment during their coverage of the 2023 general elections. At least 14 journalists and media workers were either detained, harassed, or subjected to attacks.
Within Nigeria, the CPJ highlighted various incidents, one of which involved Saint Mienpamo Onitsha, the founder and publisher of NAIJA Live TV. On October 10, 2023, he was apprehended and accused of cybercrime and defamation for publishing a report. In this report he claimed that there was unrest in the Niger Delta after a man was killed by security personnel outside government premises in Abuja. Police officers apprehended Onitsha on October 10, 2023, within the premises of his friend, Charles Kuboro James, who was residing in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State. The officers allegedly made an uninvited entry into James’ residence and forced him to make a distressing phone call, summoning Onitsha against his will.
Onitsha’s arrest echoes the press freedom crisis in Nigeria.
James and Onitsha were forcefully taken by police officers who accused them of criminal conspiracy. They were forced into police vehicles at gunpoint and driven towards the police station. However, James was dumped on the roadside while Onitsha was held overnight at the Criminal Investigation Department office in Yenagoa. The next day, Onitsha was flown to Abuja and detained at the police headquarters there. Onitsha was accused by the police of engaging in cyberstalking in accordance with the Cybercrimes Act, which carries a severe punishment of ₦25 million naira (US$32,694) fine and or a possible 10-year imprisonment. Additionally, charges of defamation and publishing defamatory material were pressed against Onitsha under the Criminal Code Act, with a maximum sentence of two years behind bars.
Haruna Mohammed Salisu, the owner of WikkiTimes, a private news website, was apprehended and held in police custody without any charges, according to the CPJ. In addition, the CPJ mentioned that Eritrea’s detainment of journalists comprises individuals who have been imprisoned for an extensive period without any formal charges, constituting some of the longest-standing cases of journalists deprived of their freedom globally. Despite the peace agreement of 2022 that brought an end to a two-year civil war, Ethiopia continues to face challenges to press freedom. The country which forced a journalist exiled in Djibouti to return and confront terrorism charges currently detains a total of eight journalists as of December 1, 2023.
CPJ report shows press suppression surges in Turkey and Egypt.
Turkey and Egypt, two countries well known for their oppressive treatment of journalists, were also ranked together in the CPJ’s 2023 census report. It was revealed that both nations had imprisoned a hidden number of journalists, with Egypt recording 13 jailed journalists. In recent years, false news, terrorism, and anti-state charges have experienced an alarming surge in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iraqi Kurdistan, as revealed by the report. Furthermore, Egypt has a track record of limiting journalists’ endeavours even after they have completed their sentences.
Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, an Egyptian photojournalist and recipient of the CPJ International Press Freedom Award, faced a five-year ban on travelling outside his country following his release from prison in 2019. Eritrea, which currently holds 16 journalists behind bars, has owned its reputation as the seventh-most oppressive state towards journalists worldwide and the most oppressive one within the African continent. In Eritrea, a number of journalists have been languishing in prison, setting world records for the length of their detention without any charges pressed against them.
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Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed a surge in imprisoned journalists by December 1, reaching 47 individuals compared to 31 in 2022 and 30 in 2021. Notably, Ethiopia and Cameroon held second and third positions, respectively, with 8 journalists incarcerated in Ethiopia and 6 in Cameroon. These numbers shed light on the arduous conditions of the Ethiopian media space. However, certain areas of the country are still troubled, and there is an ongoing conflict in Amhara State between regional militia and federal forces. Following the coverage of this conflict, all eight journalists in CPJ’s census were apprehended in 2023. The collected data also highlights media suppression in Senegal, Zambia, Angola, and Madagascar. Senegal has a history of imprisoning journalists, as seen in its census records from 2008 and 2022. On both occasions, there was a solitary journalist behind bars.