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African Journalists Continue to Face Daily Threats

More than 100 African journalists are marking World Press Freedom Day with workshops and discussions in Dakar, Senegal, on topics such as the problems media face in impoverished conflict zones and countries in often-violent transition.

This was an angry opposition crowd recently in Lome, Togo, greeting journalists who they thought favored last month's contested election victory of Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the country's deceased four-decade ruler.

At first, in contrast, soldiers seemed sympathetic to most journalists, but, when reporters started uncovering the army's human rights abuses, smiles were replaced by menacing stares and point-gun demands for all sorts of accreditation.

The communications minister accused journalists of being responsible for violence breaking out. Independent newspapers were prevented from publishing.

VOA's popular affiliate radio station, Kanal FM, had already been taken off the air for one month because of an editorial in which it alleged prior human rights abuses by members of Mr. Gnassingbe's campaign team.

Amie Jool Cole is a journalist from the Gambia, where unknown gunmen killed a senior editor last year, while other reporters had their houses burned down. She says, too often, those competing for power think journalists are either with them or against them.

"They forget that we are not there for them," said Ms. Cole. "We are performing a second task and when they take over, whether it's by a military coup or through rigged elections or whether clean elections, we're still there to make sure that we are the watchdogs of society and when you start questioning or reporting things about them then they don't see you in a good light. And, then, that's how they start to harass people."

Journalist Luckson Chipare from Namibia says opposition leaders are usually more accessible and, while in opposition, use the media to promise transparency. But he says if they do reach power, many times they become worse than their predecessors.

"These people who fight for power when they are fighting, we are reporting on their activities, they see as good friends and once they take over and we say "Hey, this is what you said you would do yesterday," then we turn to be their enemies again," added Luckson Chipare.

A civil society group representative from post-war Liberia, John Kollie, says it's important for journalists to have an environment in which they can operate without fear. Elsewise, he says their role in helping with accountability is too dangerous to perform.

"An environment I'm talking about is an environment where they know that if they are exposing corruption or if they are doing investigative journalism that they themselves are not targeted," he said. "And, that environment can happen through an understanding that this is their public duty to inform the citizens about what is going on in the country and therefore they should be protected. We need laws that enable journalists to operate freely, we need a society that gives them the protection that they need."

Gambian Amie Cole says non-journalists should understand it's in their interest as well.

"In order to bring about those legal reforms, for those members of civil society to understand that if there's no free access to information or freedom of expression they themselves will be denied certain rights because access to information and access to be able to express yourself is not only for the journalists but it's also for everybody who live in a certain society," she said.

Journalists in Dakar did agree it's important to raise their own professionalism and standards of ethics to be above reproach and avoid libelous statements. But they say this is a real challenge in a depressed economic environment, in which many reporters are dependent on politically-motivated handouts, rather than advertisement-driven revenues.