As the U.S. welcomed African leaders to Washington for a summit this week, the media freedom record of several of those countries was brought into focus.
At least 56 journalists are in prison for their work in 11 African countries, several of which have a long history of silencing the free press, according to a report released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
While Iran and China registered as the most prolific jailers of journalists in the annual report, with 62 and 43, respectively, in prison, Egypt with 21 cases and Eritrea with 16 feature among the 10 worst countries.
The report paints a grim picture for those imprisoned, often for reporting information unfavorable to the government. Overall, 2022 marked the highest total on record for CPJ, with 363 journalists in prison as of December 1, 2022.
CPJ’s Angela Quintal told VOA the report’s release is “rather ironic” because “we have these leaders who happen to be meeting President [Joe] Biden, [Secretary of State Antony Blinken], and doing trade deals, who are among the worst jailers of journalists in Africa.”
Eritrea was one of the countries not invited to the summit because it doesn’t have formal diplomatic ties with the U.S. However, advocates and exiled writers have been calling for the release of journalists imprisoned there, some for 21 years.
“Their whereabouts aren’t known, their families don’t know where they are and no one knows what kind of life they are leading or whether they are alive,” said Eritrean writer Awet Fissehaye.
The exiled poet is the executive director of PEN Eritrea. His organization recently displayed images of detained Eritrean journalists in the British Parliament to raise awareness.
In Cameroon, at least five journalists are in prison after authorities responded to a conflict involving separatist movements in the English-speaking region. Journalists covering the unrest were intimidated or abducted, CPJ reported.
Morocco has at least three journalists detained, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has two journalists in prison. CPJ documented one journalist each in Algeria, Burundi, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Of the four journalists jailed in Rwanda, three were arrested for posting content deemed critical of the government on YouTube.
“They’re doing it on this platform because it’s one of the country’s few remaining publishing platforms, because the space for dissenting speech has been closed down in traditional media,” Quintal said.
She added that CPJ has heard “worrying reports of torture and ill-treatment and poor conditions” for journalists behind bars.
Rwanda’s Justice Ministry did not immediately respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Neighboring Burundi is responsible for the only known case of a detained female journalist in Africa: Floriane Irangabiye.
“She’s reportedly been sexually assaulted during her detention,” Quintal said.
CPJ’s researchers who spoke with people familiar with the reporter’s case say an intelligence agent allegedly groped Irangabiye.
Burundi’s prosecutor general has said the allegation is “unfounded.”
CPJ’s annual report offers a snapshot of journalists in jail, but that doesn’t offer the full picture, says Quintal. The nonprofit includes only cases of journalists detained by official government entities.
Ethiopia is one such case, she said. The country has been mired in a two-year-long civil war, and journalists have been caught in the crossfire.
In August, CPJ published research showing that at least 63 journalists had been detained or briefly held covering political events or stories about the war.
In the Tigray region’s capital, Mekelle, five journalists are currently held by the regional leadership. Three are accused of “collaborating with the enemy” during a period when the regional capital was under the federal government’s control.
Because the Tigray regional government is not officially recognized as the formal authority, the cases are not included in CPJ’s report.
“We are urging the Tigray rebels to ensure that they are released as soon as possible,” Quintal said. “No journalist deserves to be in jail for their work.”
Mesfin Araya, an attorney of one of the journalists, told VOA’s Tigrigna Service that tactics are used to delay justice and that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
The regional prosecutor’s office said the journalists weren’t held because of journalism but because they were suspected of being involved in other crimes.
Most of the journalists in Africa are being jailed on anti-state charges, but cybercrime laws and criminal defamation also present risks.
In Senegal, journalist Pape Ale Niang, who runs the news website Dakar Matin, was accused of spreading information harmful to public security charges for publishing stories about rape allegations involving an opposition political figure.
And Oloye Ayodele Samuel of Nigerian outlet Taraba Truth & Facts is detained on defamation charges.
The arrest of even one journalist can be damaging to a country’s media freedom environment, experts say.
Authorities in Somalia have twice detained Abdalle Ahmed Mumin of the Somali Journalists Syndicate in recent months, in a move condemned by international rights groups.
CPJ and Human Rights Watch are among the rights groups who raised Mumin’s case in a Monday letter to the country’s attorney general.
“To this day [Mumin] faces ongoing threats and persecution,” the letter read. “Continuing his prosecution not only casts a chilling effect on media freedom and journalism, but it also significantly contributes to the closing civic space in the country.”
Quintal at CPJ says international pressure can bring change. In Egypt, at least 12 journalists have been freed, in part due to the efforts of international advocates.
Globally, CPJ says it has helped with the release of 130 journalists in 2022.
“That is why we do believe that the international community does have a role to play,” in ensuring the safety and release of journalists in states that Quintal describes as “repressive,” “anti-press freedom,” and “anti-free expression.”
VOA Tigrigna Service’s Minia Afwerki and Mulugeta Atsbeha contributed to this report.