The Horn of Africa region is among the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist, according to a global watchdog group. The Committee to Protect Journalists says numerous journalists in the region have been forced to flee home under threat of death or imprisonment.
The New York-based group warns that the quality of reporting has suffered significantly due to the high number of local journalists from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea who have been imprisoned, attacked, forced to flee, or censured.
In its annual report on press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists also declares Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Gambia, and Sudan as particularly troubled environments for press freedoms on the continent.
Six Somalis were killed in 2009 for their work as journalists, bringing the total to 21 since 2005. Islamist rebel group al-Shabab – who controls much of the country – has been especially abusive towards media workers, barraging them with threats, assaults, and censorship, according to CPJ.
The Western-backed Somali government has also reportedly been responsible for cracking down on local members of the press. The group says the perilous conditions have led many of the country’s best reporters to flee into exile.
Nineteen Eritrean and four Ethiopian journalists were behind bars as of December 2009, according to the group’s research.
The report says that the professional void created by this endemic intimidation and abuse has made it much more difficult for the rest of the world to monitor the developments in these countries, which is particularly troublesome given that press freedom is often most restricted in areas prone to humanitarian crises, such as conflict zones and territories under the control of repressive regimes.
In the case of Somalia, international media houses rely almost exclusively on the accounts of local journalists, as the situation is considered too dangerous to maintain any permanent outside presence.
David Makali, director of the Nairobi-based East African Media Institute, says that local news organizations – usually operating on shoe-string budgets – simply do not have the capacity to protect their reporters in these high-risk areas.
“In this region with a lot of conflict, journalists are being put on the front line and there is a lot of pressure on them to report accurately and to venture into territories which are dangerous,” said Makali. “I don’t think that in terms of preparedness, the media in this region is able to cover these conflicts which emerge. They are trying, but the repercussions are really serious,” he added.
CPJ also describes the difficult plight of local journalists who are forced into exile, saying that most are unable to make it as journalists in their new environment and must find new ways of supporting their families.
The Union of Exiled Somali Journalists says that up to 80 of their colleagues have fled the Horn of African nation during the past decade due to the hazardous conditions back home. CPJ says that English-speaking reporters are disproportionately targeted.
The annual report also criticizes the Rwandan government led by President Paul Kagame for harshly squashing political dissent in the press.