FILE -Relatives and fellow journalists pray as they stand next to the body of Somali journalist Abdulaziz Ali Haji during his funeral , Sept. 28, 2016, in Mogadishu.
FILE -Relatives and fellow journalists pray as they stand next to the body of Somali journalist Abdulaziz Ali Haji during his funeral , Sept. 28, 2016, in Mogadishu.

JOHANNESBURG - Twenty-sixteen has been a grim year for African journalism, with six journalists killed and 41 languishing in prisons across sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In 2015, 14 journalists were killed, and 34 were in jail in Africa.

Worldwide, at least 48 journalists were killed this year, many of them in the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, 90 percent were local journalists. Worldwide there are 259 imprisoned journalists, the highest figure CPJ has documented in at least 16 years of record-keeping.

In Africa, all the journalists killed were locals, and few of their killers have been arrested or prosecuted.

The deadliest African nation for journalists was Somalia, with three journalists killed in a troubled coastal nation that hasn’t had a stable central government for more than two decades, and where rival armed groups battle for influence, territory and resources.

Of the 41 jailed journalists, 33 are in the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea, two nations whose governments have been accused of becoming increasingly intolerant of the press amid growing dissatisfaction with their long rule.

FILE - Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing
FILE - Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, Oct. 2, 2016.

William Bird, director of Johannesburg-based Media Monitoring Africa, says the arrests of the half-dozen Ethiopian journalists run parallel to the rise of anti-government protests this year. Of the six journalists arrested in Ethiopia this year, five are being held without charge and all five had reported critically on the protests.

Silencing criticism

“We’ve seen, certainly in 2016, significant levels of civil uprising to challenge the lack of freedom there and part of the government’s default response has been to arrest and detain journalists,” he told VOA. “So they’re clearly taking an approach that says, the best way of staying in power is to crush anyone who opposes you.”

And, he says, it works.

“We’ve got journalists in jails throughout our continent, and there’s seldom a peep,” he said. “These are tactics that unfortunately on our continent tend to have a far greater and more devastating impact, partly because there are less media in those countries anyway, but also because there isn’t as much international outrage when you arrest an African journalist in an African country, than when you arrest a journalist from a major international news outlet.”

FILE - A journalists runs past a cloud of tear gas
FILE - A journalists runs past a cloud of tear gas after riot police dispersed anti-corruption protesters opposing the graft and abuse of funds in public healthcare, during a demonstration in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Nov. 3, 2016.

In Somalia, Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, a former radio journalist and secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, says killings in his country are mercifully lower than last year. But he says, that could be because so many journalists have already been killed, he ticked off at least two dozen that he could remember, and many others have fled into exile or been driven to self-censor.

Moalimuu lives in Mogadishu, but spoke to VOA via Skype from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where he is attending a journalism workshop.

“Some of our colleagues went to other parts of the world, and they fled from Somalia because of their own security,” he said. “So that’s what they want, that’s what all those people who want to silence the media wanted.”

Truth over danger

He says he has had two close calls, most recently in January of last year, when he had to play dead to avoid being killed as militants sorted among a heap of fallen bodies and fired bullets into those who appeared to still be alive.

But, he says, it’s only strengthened his resolve.

“If we all leave and run away from Somalia, that’s what these people who want to silence the media want,” he said. “So we are actually insisting until the last drop of our blood we will remain in Somalia and work. ... We still want to die for our people because our people deserve to listen and hear what the reality on the ground is.”

The six journalists killed in Africa in 2016 mostly covered conflict, corruption and politics. The only African female journalist killed presented a children’s radio show in Somalia. Somali extremists have targeted women who hold prominent leadership roles.

Their names were Abdiaziz Ali, El-Hadj Mohamed Diallo, Isaac Vuni, Mahad Ali Mohamed, Marcel Lubala, and the lone woman, Sagal Salad Osman.