By Mohamed Keita/CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator
Timely and accurate information about conditions of drought and famine in Africa's Sahel could save lives. But if the press is unable to report freely, how does a country build consensus on tackling national food security and ensure that official policies are the result of broad consultation with all segments of society? What happens when leaders of a nation respond to this caprice of nature by deliberately downplaying the extent of the crisis, limiting journalists' access to sensitive areas, and censoring independent coverage of the problem, in the name of protecting the country's image?
Today, in a public letter, the Committee to Protect Journalists asked President Obama to consider these questions as he prepares to host the Group of Eight and discussions on food security with four leaders from Africa, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.
Meles has introduced large-scale agribusiness and land-leasing practices in an effort to increase Ethiopia's food output. But without a free press, it's impossible for citizens, aid groups, or international donors to contextualize official claims about the impact of these reforms.
CPJ's letter points out that investigative journalism once saved millions of lives in Ethiopia--when international reporters, questioning official statements, circumvented restrictions and censorship in order to document a deepening famine hidden from the world by a dictator. The images they published moved the world to help millions of starving people, but they also became lasting icons of Ethiopia in the minds of many--an association that upsets many Ethiopians. Nearly 30 years later, confronted with continuous cycles of drought, the Meles's government seems to have chosen to safeguard the country's image at the expense of facilitating documentation of the crisis and the delivery of aid.
It is unlikely that today's reporters will dare to take the risks assumed by international journalists who entered famine-stricken areas of Ethiopia in the 1980s. One Ethiopia-based journalist told me that Meles's government forbids reporters from using the "F word" (famine) or photographing obviously malnourished children. Furthermore, since 2011, under the guise of a counterterrorism sweep, the government has brought terrorism and anti-state charges against 11 independent journalists, including two Swedes sentenced to 11-year jail terms. Such policies deter reporting on all sensitive topics, including food security.
Meles himself said at the World Economic Forum panel on leadership that an "engaged citizenry" is necessary to overcome corruption. A free press is essential to that goal.
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several panels.