/ 21 December 2021

Seventy-five African journalists imprisoned for doing their jobs

In Eritrea
In Eritrea, certain topics are known to be out of bounds for journalists. (Reuters/Leonhard Foeger)

One in every four journalists currently in prison for their work is African. Egypt, where 25 journalists are in jail, is the worst media repressor on the continent, followed by Eritrea (16), but the “biggest setback for media freedom came in Ethiopia”, says a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based watchdog.

Across Africa, 12 governments sent 75 journalists to jail this year ― or kept them there. That is how many were in jail on 1 December, when the press freedom watchdog did the census, and does not include those who had been jailed but were subsequently released.

In Ethiopia, where nine journalists are in jail, the repression is tied to the emergency laws imposed over the civil war in Tigray. Other countries, like Rwanda (seven) and Cameroon (six), are continuing a years-long pattern. In each of the censuses CPJ has done since 2018, Rwanda and Cameroon have had at least 11 imprisoned journalists between them.

Some cases are shocking accounts of state repression and impunity. “Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, for example, has spent every night in police custody since he was freed from Tora prison on March 4, 2019,” the census report says.

Zeid was arrested in 2013 while covering clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi. He was kept in prison, without conviction, for five years. In 2018, a court said he was guilty of murder and belonging to a terrorist group and sentenced him to five years, which he had already served. 

He was released shortly after, but on “police observation” ― an order to report to a police station every day at sunset. “Every evening so far, police order him to spend the night in the station’s cells,” the CPJ report says.

Across the world, CPJ counted 293 journalists behind bars, with China (50), being the top repressor. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper made to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.