By Martin Plaut


Reporting in a war zone

The war in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, which erupted in November 2020, is probably the bloodiest current conflict in the world. It is also the least reported. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people have lost their lives in the bitter fighting.[1] This is the ‘best guess’ by Kjetil Tronvoll, professor at Oslo New University College, who has spent years working in the region. No-one knows for certain, because the region is sealed off from the outside world. Ethiopian troops and their associated militia have blockaded Tigray from the south and east, Eritrean forces have done the same in the north and west. No independent journalist has been allowed into the region for many months.

Indeed, one of the few international journalists who has penetrated Tigray is the Belgian, Stijn Vercruysse and his team.[2] They managed to get in in December 2020, revealing for the first time the role of Eritrean troops in the looting and destruction of the region. A team from Al-Jazeera managed to reach the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, in March 2021.[3]They brought back graphic reports of the rape of Tigrayan women by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. Few other journalists have followed. The best the BBC’s Africa Correspondent, Andrew Harding, could manage was to file from neighbouring Sudan.[4]

Not a single report has come from Eritrea, which is one of the main troop contributors to the war, but this is hardly surprising. Eritrea features at the very bottom of the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for 2021 – even below North Korea.[5] It is, quite literally, the worst place in the world for journalists. It is hermetically sealed from outside scrutiny, with even accredited ambassadors requiring written permission to travel outside of the capital, Asmara.

Since the Tigray war began the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has adopted many of the practices of his Eritrean allies. He has restricted access to the war zone, rarely providing foreign journalists with visas, and keeping those who are resident in Addis Ababa on the shortest of leashes. All fear deportation if they cross the line, and invoke the government’s wrath.

Local journalists have had to be even more circumspect. When a state of emergency was imposed in December 2021, this made journalism exceptionally dangerous. At the time, the Committee to Protect Journalists said: “Ethiopia’s state of emergency law gives security personnel extremely broad powers of arrest and suspends due process, effectively bans critical journalism, and sends an intimidating message to the press. The Ethiopian government should release all journalists detained for their work and stop using the state of emergency as a pretext to infringe on freedom of expression.”[6] Now the state of emergency has been lifted, but three fresh cases against journalists have been initiated.[7] Amir Aman Kiyaro and Thomas Engida have been charged with terrorism, while a fresh investigation is being pursued against Temerat Negara, co-founder of the online news outlet Terara Network.

The wider African picture

The Ethiopian experience is not unique, but it is not universal across Africa. Reporters Without Frontiers rightly points to the different experiences journalists face on the continent.[8] “Many different levels of press freedom exist in Africa, from Senegal and its lively newspapers to Eritrea and Djibouti, where there are no privately-owned media at all.” But RWF then remark: “After a wave of liberalisation in the 1990s, press freedom violations are now only too common.”

In reality there are few trends that hold true across the whole continent. Countries which were relatively free sometimes then go into reverse, but the opposite is also the case. Tanzania, which had draconian regulations introduced under the notorious President John Magufuli, who came to power in 2015. His cybercrimes act of the same year made it an offense to insult the president.[9] This was followed by a 2016 Media Services Act, which handed out jail sentences for acts deemed to be seditious. Regulation was piled on regulation, making any form of independent journalism very difficult indeed.[10] Finally, in March 2021 Magufuli went the way of all flesh, and was buried. He had probably died of Covid, a virus he sought to treat with the prayers and herbal-infused steam therapy.[11] He was replaced by a woman – President Samia Suluhu Hassan – who has chosen a different path. In February this year she lifted the ban imposed on four newspapers that had been closed by her predecessor.[12] Speaking during a meeting with editors, Minister of Information Nape Nnauye said the papers’ licences were being restored on the orders of President Hassan as part of her promise to uphold press freedom.

Africa’s rulers are not the only problem. Dealing with presidents with dictatorial tendencies is bad enough, but journalists must also keep a wary eye on technology. The phone in their pocket and the computer on their desk are not always their friends. Spyware is today a major problem for all correspondents and reporters, as governments turn to technology to keep an eye on (and gather evidence against) journalists.

Perhaps the most notorious spyware is peddled by an Israeli company: Pegasus.[13] In 2019 the Financial Timesexplained how this worked: Pegasus had been “weaponising a vulnerability in WhatsApp, used by 1.5bn people globally, to deliver Pegasus completely surreptitiously. The user did not even have to answer the phone [the spy malware could be delivered by a missed call] but once delivered, the software instantly used flaws in the device’s operating system to turn it into a secret eavesdropping tool. WhatsApp quickly closed the vulnerability and launched a six-month investigation into the abuse of its platforms.”[14] Its products have been provided to governments from Armenia to Yemen. But Rwanda is the African state that is probably most closely associated with Pegasus. The FT reported that among those targeted by the Rwandan government was a journalist living in exile in Uganda, who had petitioned the government in Kampala to help protect Rwandans in the country from assassination. It is a fate that frequently befalls opponents of President Kagame – inside the country and in exile.[15]

Rwanda is by no means unique. Ethiopia is also named as having deployed spyware.[16] One report suggested that no fewer than seven other African governments are using Israeli technology to spy on their citizens.[17] These include Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Botswana, Kenya and Zambia. It is impossible to know how much of this is targeting journalists: covert operations are – obviously – covert. But since it is reported that Israeli politicians and journalists have been subjected to Pegasus surveillance, we can be pretty sure that African reporters have suffered the same fate.[18]

The Israelis are by no means the only state providing surveillance services to African governments, or using the information they gather for their own purposes. The Chinese were accused by the African Union of bugging the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa for five years.[19] Indeed, it is alleged that Chinese constructed buildings across Africa, built with Chinese aid and by Chinese companies, and all have carefully installed surveillance systems.[20] Journalists need to be tech-savvy if they are to evade the watchful eyes of their own (and other) governments, as they go about their normal business.

The South African case

On the face of it, South Africa would appear to enjoy a thriving media scene. Its earliest newspaper was published in 1800 – the Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser. Many of its papers have a long and honourable history. The state run South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has a charter based on the BBC, but was sadly captured first by the apartheid government and then by the African National Congress (ANC).[21] Since the ANC came to power its coverage has been biased in favour of the government. The SABC has even refused to broadcast the campaign adverts of various opposition parties during elections.[22]

Perhaps the most serious problem facing the media came with an attempt by the ANC to gain control of the major media houses. This was done via Surve Iqbal’s Sekunjalo Independent Media.[23] Iqbal, who claimed to be Nelson Mandel’s doctor during his time in jail, took control of 18 newspapers including The Star, Sunday Independent, Cape Argus and Business Report. This was done through complex loans, with some from the Public Investment Corporation, some from trade unions and some from the Chinese.[24] The coverage of events in Iqbal’s media outlets soon became much less critical of the ANC. They also lost readers – hand over fist. Today the Iqbal empire appears to have hit the buffers. As the Daily Maverick reported on 12 February 2022: “Iqbal Survé has suffered yet another existential setback with three of the “big four” banks now refusing to do business with any company tied to him and his Sekunjalo Investment Holdings”.[25]

It may be that the ANC’s state control over sections of the media is finally disintegrating, just as it is losing electoral support. The party’s vote fell below 50% for the first time since the end of apartheid during last year’s local elections.[26] The independent media – including the Mail & Guardian, Daily Maverick and Amabhungane – have all played their part in exposing ANC corruption and what became known as “state capture”. The Zondo commission unearthed a mountain of evidence, with the help of testimony from one of my co-authors, Paul Holden.[27] It is estimated that former President Jacob Zuma and his associates took 1.2 trillion rand ($85 billion) from the state.[28] It is an allegation Mr Zuma strenuously denies, even as he fiercely resists ever being taken before a court.[29]


From the arguments above it would seem that journalism in Africa is a hazardous endeavour that few would wish to attempt. In 2021 eight African journalists were killed in the line of duty, and 46 were jailed.[30] Yet young men and women still stream into the profession. African reporting is vibrant and influential. From social media to mainstream television and newspapers, the continent is – on the whole – well served. Some information comes from the international media: BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, VOA and China’s well-funded CGTN Africa. But they are not dominant. There are plenty of home-grown African voices that are consumed by Africa’s young and voracious audience.