A rash of killings across Africa has renewed focus on the risks facing those working to expose wrongdoing.
The killings of two journalists in Cameroon and a respected human rights defender in Eswatini, along with the suspicious death of a well-known editor in Rwanda have raised questions about whether justice will be done.
The cases also underscored the dangers of impunity — with such incidents sending an unsettling message to government critics and the free press.
“There can be no doubt that when journalists are killed with impunity there is a chilling effect. It’s trite, but murder is the ultimate form of censorship,” Angela Quintal, head of the Africa program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA.
“The lack of consequences for those who kill or harm journalists obviously also emboldens others who believe they too can get away with it or allows those who threaten journalists to continue to do so,” she said.
In the case of Martinez Zogo, the Cameroonian journalist was forced into a car, having in vain sought help from a police station during the kidnapping. He was heard shouting “Help me, they want to kill me,” according to reports.
His body was found a few days later, naked and badly mutilated.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said that Zogo’s “fingers were cut off, his arms and legs were broken in several places, and a steel rod was rammed into his anus.”
Two weeks later, Ola Bebe, a radio host and priest, was found dead close to his home in the capital.
The killings prompted a U.N. Human Rights spokesperson to call on authorities to “take all necessary measures to create an enabling environment for journalists to work without fear of reprisal.”
The Cameroon cases were not isolated.
On Jan. 21, an outspoken critic of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Eswatini lawyer and columnist Thulani Maseko, was shot dead through the window of his home.
He had been a constant thorn in the side of the government of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, and had been jailed for more than a year in 2014.
Amnesty International’s Southern Africa spokesperson Robert Shivambu told VOA at the time that Maseko's death had sent a chilling message to pro-democracy activists and could signify an escalation in attacks against those who are openly seeking political reforms.
On Jan. 18, John Williams Ntwali, editor of Rwanda’s Chronicles newspaper, died when a speeding car hit the motorcycle he was traveling on.
The death of a journalist who had frequently faced threats in relation to his work raised questions among media watchdogs about whether it was really an accident.
Human Rights Watch noted that prior to his death, Ntwali had told a friend that he’d survived a number of “staged incidents” in Kigali, and a fellow Rwandan journalist told VOA that the night before he died, Ntwali had seemed anxious.
All three countries have poor records on RSF’s Press Freedom Index, with Rwanda placing 136, Cameroon 118 and Eswatini 131 out of 180 countries where 1 denotes the best conditions.
Still, authorities in each case have vowed to investigate.
This week, a Rwandan court identified the driver of the vehicle that hit Ntwali as Moise Emmanuel Bagirishya. A court convicted Bagirishya of involuntary manslaughter and fined him $920.
However, the trial was not open to the public and Bagirishya was not present for the sentencing.
CPJ’s Quintal says that the lack of transparency “merely feeds into the suspicions that all is not what it seems.”
“We cannot say for sure that it was indeed an accident until there are more facts and questions answered,” she said.
Michela Wrong, a British journalist and author of a book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb. The story of a political murder and a regime gone bad, told VOA the country had a track record of political assassination.
"People die in road accidents in Africa every day, but Rwanda isn't like any other African state,” she said. “This is a country with a track record of extrajudicial killings, mysterious disappearances and arbitrary arrests involving journalists, opposition party members and human rights activists.”
“Crucially, John Williams Ntwali told friends that he was receiving death threats, lived in constant fear, and had been repeatedly ordered to report to police headquarters. In that context, his death is highly suspicious,” Wrong said.
In the case of Maseko, many rights groups have intimated the government could have been connected to the killing. His death came just hours after the king, Mswati III, spoke against activists challenging his rule.
Government officials have angrily denied such claims.
Despite promising a swift investigation, no arrests have yet been made.
Eswatini government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo told VOA that authorities were investigating numerous crimes, and that “no one case is above the other.”
He added that Maseko’s murder “is indeed taken seriously but not in isolation from other cases.”
In Cameroon however, multiple arrests have been made in the killing of Zogo, including Justin Danwe, deputy head of Cameroon’s General Directorate for External Investigations.
Danwe, who confessed to participating in the kidnapping and murder, implicated other senior officials.
VOA sent an email to the Justice Ministry requesting comment but as of publication had not heard back.
More arrests came Monday, as police detained businessman Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga and two of his associates.
In his reporting for Amplitude FM, Zogo had alleged that Belinga was involved in a public embezzlement scheme.
CPJ’s Quintal acknowledged the high-profile arrests as a “welcoming sign,” but she said “as yet, no one has been charged and very little has been made public.”
“There are ‘leaks’ from certain quarters, but there is a lot of smoke and mirrors and misinformation and even disinformation,” she said.
“Given the reality of Cameroon today where there is a power struggle between elites with an ailing President [Paul] Biya who has been in power for 40 years, we are watching to see how things play out and whether there will indeed be justice for Martinez Zogo,” she said.