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April Cruel to African Journalists

April 17, 1998

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ In the space of a week, one reporter was killed, a newspaper editor was dragged off by security agents and a publisher was ordered to remain in prison for a year.

During the same week, a former radio correspondent was accused of treason and the offices of an opposition newspaper were ransacked and looted by armed thugs.

For journalists in West Africa, from war-wracked Sierra Leone to repressive Congo, April so far has been a cruel month.

``Over the last two years, the West African sub-region has become the worst region in Africa with regard to press freedoms,″ says Kakuna Kerina of the New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists.

British Broadcasting Corp. reporter Eddie Smith was killed Monday during an ambush while trying to cover the latest fighting in Sierra Leone, his war-ravaged country.

Two days later, Hilton Fyle, another former BBC correspondent from Sierra Leone, was charged with treason for allegedly working with that country’s recently ousted military junta.

In Cameroon on Tuesday, an appeals court judge ordered opposition newspaper publisher Pius Njawe to remain in prison for a year. Although Njawe’s two-year term was reduced, the judge upheld his earlier conviction.

Njawe’s crime: reporting that President Paul Biya suffered from a heart condition. The government denies the report, but Njawe stands by his story.

Silencing journalists in Africa is nothing new, but press freedom activist Robert Menard says the methods of suppressing information are changing.

Leaders intolerant of dissent and criticism in some West African countries are now employing a more sophisticated form of censorship through the courts.

``In Cameroon, for example, President Biya is replacing outright censorship with court rulings against a free press,″ said Menard, the secretary-general of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

In other cases, censorship still takes the form of outright intimidation. In Niger, gunmen ransacked and looted the offices of the independent Republican newspaper on Wednesday.

``This was a commando operation ordered by the government to silence our newspaper,″ editor Mamane Abou said.

Days earlier in Congo, newspaper editor Michel Ladi Luya was arrested by security agents and dragged from his newspaper offices in Kinshasa.

No formal charge has been leveled against Luya, and his newspaper, The Record, called the arrest an official ``kidnapping″ by President Laurent Kabila’s security detail.

Luya had printed a letter from opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi that called Kabila’s rule totalitarian.

In February, the editor of another Congolese newspaper, The Potential, was arrested after publishing an article questioning Tshisekedi’s internal exile to his hometown in eastern Congo. Modeste Mutingo Mutuishayi was freed three days after his arrest.

When Kabila forced longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko out of power last year, many hoped his new government would embrace civil liberties. The opposite appears to be true.

``In Kinshasa with Mr. Kabila we thought there would be a good trend,″ Menard said. ``Instead, it is even worse than under Mobutu for the press.″

Late last year, 10 journalists were whipped by the Congolese military for attending an opposition news conference.

And then there’s Nigeria _ perhaps the most repressive regime in West Africa _ which routinely jails reporters, trashes newspaper offices and accuses leading opposition journalists of treason.

At least 17 journalists are known to be in prison, the Committee To Protect Journalists says. One senior newspaper editor is on trial for allegedly collaborating with military officers to overthrow Gen. Sani Abacha.

``We have a very active and vibrant press in Nigeria, but you have to know when to draw the line,″ says Augustine Nwikinaka, a reporter for the state-controlled Rivers Radio.

During his recent visit to Nigeria, Pope John Paul II asked for the release of about 60 political prisoners, including the 17 journalists, Kerina said.

The request, so far, has been met with silence.

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