Bob Press on the key role journalists play in defending democracy and human rights in Africa.
Journalists have played, and continue to play, a key role in the promotion and defence of human rights and democracy in Africa. Courageous reporters and editors can keep even repressive regimes off balance with their reporting.
Journalists are in the front ranks of the peaceful resistance that has helped transform many sub-Saharan African countries from authoritarian to democratic rule, a trend that unfortunately has slowed, and even reversed itself, in recent years. So there is a continuing need to help support, train, and protect journalists of integrity, especially given the number of African countries still not in the “free” category of Freedom House.
Here are two brief stories: (1) about two brave journalists in Sierra Leone, and (2) about some of my former human-rights students at the University of Sierra Leone who, four years after my class, are promoting human rights across the country.
#1. In 1995, in Sierra Leone, a military government had become abusive and was trying to extend its time in power. People were getting restless. A few principled journalists had been reporting news critical of the junta. But the military was especially tired of one journalist: Paul Kamara.
Kamara had reported the first abuses of the junta when they came to power in 1992, including the beating and sexual molestation of a prominent woman. For his critical reporting, the junta closed down his Krio-language paper, For Di People, for about three years. But by 1995, it was publishing again, exposing human-rights abuses. Finally, the military brass had had enough. They ‘invited’ Paul Kamara and his fellow journalist at the same paper, Sallieu Kamara (the two are not related), to a meeting with the minister of defence. When they got there, they found themselves in a room with the top commanders of the then-ongoing civil war (the war lasted from 1991 to 2002).
“The room was packed full of senior military officers. We were the only people who were civilians in that place,” Sallieu Kamara recalls. The minister of defence sternly warned Paul Kamara to stop his reporting on human-rights abuses. If you don’t, he said, “We will kill you. And when we kill you we will see if human rights will give you life again.”
At that point, most journalists might have quietly stopped reporting critical news. But Paul Kamara is not like most journalists. He had been arrested by every Sierra Leonean government that had been in power since he began reporting, and he wasn’t about to abandon his work. Sallieu Kamara recalls Paul Kamara’s exact words:
We are very much grateful for you inviting us here. But you have your own responsibilities as soldiers to protect the territorial integrity of this country. We have our own responsibilities as human rights activists and as journalists to do what we are doing. And as long as you continue to do your role in protecting this country, we’ll also continue to do our role as journalists and human rights [advocates]. So if you have to kill us, kill us now or else we’ll continue our work.
He and Sallieu walked out of the meeting. A senior military officer rushed after them to say that the military was serious and they were in danger. But he continued his reporting for another year. Then, ironically, it would seem, he was offered a cabinet minister’s post in the military junta, which he accepted. The military was trying to quiet him. But he told them his paper would continue critical reporting. Not long after that, he refused to sign some government documents that looked phony. And not long after that, he was attacked by gunmen on the street, and barely survived. Today, he is back in Freetown, continuing his critical reporting.
Now, most of us are not that brave. But he was not alone. Another journalist I know in Freetown, and others in Kenya and Liberia, have done some very brave reporting.
#2. When I taught human rights in Sierra Leone (from 2008-2009 on a Fulbright Fellowship), many of my students said they wanted to be human-rights “activists.” Turns out a group of them are. For the past three years, a group calling itself Project 1991 has been voluntarily going to high schools and other universities in Sierra Leone to start human-rights clubs and talk about human rights. And during this important year – a presidential election year (the election was Nov. 17, 2012) – they fanned out on a four-city tour to sponsor forums on human rights and the importance of avoiding hate speeches in the campaigns.
From all news accounts I’ve seen, the election was peaceful. And the members of Project 1991 may have played a part in that. You can see their Facebook page here. They need additional sponsors. If you would like to donate to their work, which has been recognized by Mediators Beyond Borders and Tony Blair’s fund in Sierra Leone, please contact Betty Press.
Photo courtesy of Reuters