Book Review By: Famara Fofana
“They came from different countries, Lesotho, Tanzania, Chad, Eritrea, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda — men and women who had sought sanctuary abroad and abandoned their work as “gatekeepers” of their societies, journalists who wanted to give guidance but had been shut out. Their physical and mental agony, not to mention the economic hardships they endure, are difficult to imagine.”
Those above lines captured in the foreword sum up everything about the book Hounded: African Journalists in exile. ( https://www.kas.de/…/hounded-african-journalists-in-exile) Edited by Joseph Odindo, this tell-all compilation chronicles the plight and sacrifices of some of Africa’s daring journalists, who even at the height of tyranny in their respective countries, made it a cardinal duty to inform their fellow citizens and the larger world what they needed to hear but what the powers be at the time never wanted to hear.
Across the world, journalists have been and continue to be at the receiving end of state-sanctioned abuse. But for those in Africa especially, it was even harder under situations where very repressive governments hardly think twice in their quest to muzzle the press and clamp down on every form of divergent views. At some point, however, it was to become untenable for many. They were forced to leave behind their families, friends, and loved ones to safer shores away from the clutches of dictators and their agents of terror.
As editor Odindo puts it: “Inside Hounded: African Journalists in Exile are illuminating accounts of writers and editors who, at one time or another, have found themselves fleeing their homeland because of some unsavory news or comment published under their name.”
While the stories by their very nature pay tribute to very selfless African writers and editors from 16 jurisdictions, they can be heart-wrenching to read. Even if it were out of willingness, leaving one’s motherland for pastures new or unfamiliar surroundings can be a difficult undertaking for anyone. If that assertion holds water, what then becomes of a man who leaves the land of his birth unplanned – in a haste and under the most inconvenient of conditions – because failure to do so, one risks being killed by a bullet from some coward lurking in the shadows or whisked away in the cover of the dark by forces that are only loyal to the demagogues they serve with utter blindness?
Think of the following words by Nigerian journalist Dapo Olorunyomi, whose story is the first to be captured in the book. “ As I walked out of J.F. Kennedy Airport, New York, one cold evening in March 1996, my first thought was not of freedom. I had lived through ruthlessly biting harmattan seasons in Nigeria but nothing had prepared me for such freezing temperatures. Here I was, clad in a pair of jeans and loose sandals. Just that, in the heart of an American spring. I raced back into the relatively warm embrace of the terminal thinking I was going to die.”
The gravity of the situation in Nigeria at the time as painted by Mr. Dapo was the jailing of two Nigerian journalists at the Lagos Guardia. Their only crime in that regime under Buhari was their publishing of a list of diplomatic postings before their official announcement by the government of Major Muhammadu Buhari.
In his Nightmare of news, guns, and dollars, Ugadan Journalist Kiwanuka Lawrence Nsereko walks the reader through the myriad of challenges he has faced in his much-storied journalism career. For a man who launched his career at the tender age of 16, Nsereko has seen and heard it all. From threats, and detention to the Ugandan government’s financial strangulation of the Citizen and Munanssi newspapers by way of a notice that obliges ministries to deprive them of advertisements. The latter tactic which borders on the political economy of the media was later extended to all parastatals. The veteran journalist writes: “By 1995, only three private companies dared to risk government harassment and advertise with The Citizen.” Callous as it sounds, this is one of the ways governments in our part of the world are resorting to gag the press and force journalists into bending the knee, given that the take-home of newsroom personnel mainly comes from advertisement money.
Perhaps, the most bizarre part of Nsereko’s story is the level of desperation exhibited towards him by his country’s president Museveni, who had on more than one occasion snatched the journalist from the streets to the seat of power only to dish out what can be described as headmaster-pupil admonishment. The irony here is that the one being given an earful inside the State House of all places is the one that boasts of a better moral compass by virtue of his status as the voice of the voiceless and a fearless defender of truth and justice.
The Ugandan journalist recounts: “The president said I was free to ‘slander’ him, his cabinet, and his army, but attacking his family would not be tolerated. After lecturing me for about 40 minutes, he instructed his driver to take me back home.” It would appear that the president was irked by a media investigation into the activities of Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans (UWESO), a non-profit that had been formed to help widows and orphans in war zones. At the helm of that campaign was Janet Museveni, the president’s wife. The organization, the journalist was told, had received thousands of dollars from international donors, but its members — the civil war widows and orphans — were not benefitting at all.
In his second encounter with the president, journalist Nsereko recalls being lectured about the politics of Uganda and the dangers of being used by colonial agents “who think that multiparty politics is the panacea to Africa’s problems”. He reveals how Museveni offered to help him upgrade his small business in Katwe and send him to a university in the UK on a government scholarship. Here though seems to be a very interesting if not a desperate move by a man who has presided over the Ugandan state since 1986.
Having first tried every trick in the book to cripple Nsereko’s career and newspaper business through coercion and economic boycotts, Museveni opted to abandon the stick and went for the carrot approach by offering to inject a financial lifeline into the journalist’s enterprise on top of the salivating prospect of a package to study in the UK. From coercion to a charm offensive, the story of the Ugandan journalist beams a flashlight on the extent to which politicians, especially those in Africa are willing to go in their offensive to silence reporters and editors that are critical of their administration. It is an all-familiar experience that continues to be experienced by the private media across Africa – but in Kiwanuka Lawrence Nsereko – there shines a flicker of hope that with strong values and conscience, a journalist would never swap the ethos of his/her trade with a financial largesse from people in power, for it is the public interest that is supposed to reign supreme in the work we do.
From Gambia comes Sainey MK Marenah. Through Gambia’s halls of injustice, the popular journalist who began his career in 2008 introduced us to the harsh conditions under which the media was operating.
In the book, MK takes the reader through the pain and suffering Gambian journalists endured under the Yahya Jammeh regime for simply doing their job. He writes:” After his ascension to power in a 1994 coup d’état, Jammeh frequently singled out the media and individual journalists for harassment. Free speech was curtailed. The government treated the media as an enemy, not a partner in open government. Restrictive laws were enacted.”
As a correspondent for The Point, reporting on political, legal, and diplomatic affairs, journalist Marenah himself was no stranger to intimidation tactics employed at the behest of the state and its operatives. What was even bizarre was an episode at the high court when a judge insisted that a certain headline crafted by the reporter and another colleague was wrong even though other publications had run the same caption in a case involving a former police chief. As it can be deduced from the title by MK, the courts which ought to be the altar of justice were in fact used by the so-called mercenary judges to swing the swords of Damocles on persons perceived as ‘enemies’ even that which they were persecuted for was in the interest of the Gambian people.
With spells at The Point as a correspondent, at The Standard Newspaper as head of the judiciary desk, and also at The Voice, Sainey MK Marenah bore the brunt of the former government and its spies in their all-out crusade to gag the press.
He adds: “NIA agents denied me access to the Supreme Court during the hearing of the final appeal against the death sentence imposed on a former chief of defense staff and six others convicted of plotting to topple Jammeh. I had covered the trial since its start in 2009 until my newspaper’s closure.”
The man who now runs The Alkamba Times suffered a great deal as he found himself at the center of one legal battle after the other.
“On the second week of January 2014, I received a call from state agents who said that, on the president’s directive, they had investigated my report on the youths’ defection and found it to be false. I was summoned to Sanyang police station. A colleague had sent me a message that the police had visited The Voice’s offices in Serrekunda asking for me. They had demanded copies of my article, together with the second story, and questioned staff about editor Sheriff’s whereabouts. They arrested him when he entered the office at around 11 am.
“Alarmed by the turn of events, I nervously called my family and the Gambia Press Union (GPU). At Sanyang police station, I was ushered into the CID office and questioned for an hour. The police said they were investigating the veracity of my story. I told them I was present at the rally and stood by the report. They asked about my sources and suggested that I had written the article to alarm the public. I refused to answer any more questions until I had a lawyer.”
Following several legal entanglements that lasted several months, MK would later breathe a sigh of relief. However, as it was the norm in a society that was cowed by a gnawing fear from an autocrat and those in his orbit, what the journalist didn’t see coming was his beloved people running away from him because he just happened to land in the bad books of an unforgiving regime. Reflecting back in a tone that smacks of melancholy and despondency, Marenah details how we the people he used to interact and play with turned our backs on him as we did for the many public servants and private citizens that were blacklisted by a brutal regime.
“Despite my victory, the trial cost me a great deal. I was shunned by friends, who were afraid to be associated with me. I felt totally isolated. In those days in The Gambia, if you fell out with the state, even your family would cut you off. Newspapers rejected my articles. I lost my source of income while in detention. I could only write for a few foreign publications. Throughout the trial, everyone had advised me to leave the country. But secretly I had prayed for heightened international pressure, which could easily influence the case in my favor.”
Sadly, even after Sainey MK Marenah thought his ordeal with the country’s justice system had ended, word came through a good Samaritan that fresh plots were being hatched by Jammeh to have him re-arrested, forcing him to flee to Senegal on the 14th of November 2014. Turns out, life in the land of the ‘cheb’ was equally not all about honey and milk in the early days until he was able to secure freelance gigs from the BBC and Aljazeera.
Hounded: African Journalists in exile is refreshing and full of lessons, especially for those in power. It provides a firsthand account of the perils through which some of the continent’s most courageous and experienced journalists had to contend with in their line of duty. More significantly, however, it sends a powerful message that whilst journalists and governments will continue to have a dysfunctional relationship – with the former at times paying the ultimate price – no government or leader can ultimately silence the press regardless of the instruments at the latter’s disposal.
The Reviewer Famara Fofana is a media and communications professional and author of When My Village Was My Village