“African governments in 2007 began doing what they had not dared to do before,” begins the African section of Reporters Without Borders annual report. “Boundaries they would not previously have crossed, to crack down on journalists who annoyed them were all removed. Free of hang-ups, several information ministers spent the year defending a certain idea of Africa – one with the face of repression.”
Sounds ugly, and the Paris-based group claims 2007 was truly a nasty year. Even in shining democratic stars like Benin and Mali, presidents made phone calls to have reporters picked up and thrown in prison. Of course, Africa is not the only continent facing problems; Asia and the Middle East have not exactly become a hotbed for Democratic ideals in the name of a free press. Around the world, more journalists were killed and imprisoned than before.
RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard knows the cure. The leaders of the so-called league of democracies and international institutions must stand up for common values. One underlying reason for this reluctance – at least for the “democracies” – is business, Menard argues. Who wants to offend China’s leaders about imprisoning cyber journalists when their market is so big? Who wants to offend Russian President Vladimir Putin when oil is so important?
Let’s get back to Africa and its dark year of 2007. One reason so many African countries became so brazen in their repression of the media: the rise of Chinese power on the continent along with the corresponding loss of legitimacy of the continent’s former colonial powers.
The ever greater penetration of China, oppressive superpower if ever there was one, allowed some African governments to marginalise their western support. Encumbered by vociferous NGOs and virtuous political demands, democratic countries stand no chance against Beijing’s free-flowing dollars and multinationals, which send Chinese workers to supervise the building sites of African infrastructure without demanding anything in return. And then when it comes to repression, China has become an expert in it. It is Chinese technicians who scramble the signals of opposition radios in Zimbabwe. In addition, the difficulty in shedding the criminal past of the former colonial powers has been given a fresh impetus in the African nationalist revival.How many French ambassadors have been sent away with a flea in their ear, in the name of rejection of “French-Africa”, when they have attempted to negotiate the release of a journalist? Chinese ambassadors do not have this problem. How many African journalists or foreign reporters have been accused of being British spies in Zimbabwe? We would be wrong not to take these insinuations seriously.At the start of 2008, a fanatical newspaper in Abidjan tarnished the memory of Jean Hélène, a correspondent for RFI who was killed in a cowardly attack by a gendarme in October 2003, in claiming that he was working for French intelligence at the time.