Reporters Without Borders today published four “Letters to a young African who wants to be a journalist” to coincide with a two-day Africa-France summit dedicated to young people that starts tomorrow in the Malian capital of Bamako. The letters were written by veteran journalists from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
“These four personal accounts are instructive, showing us how African journalists do honour to a dangerous profession despite oppression, poverty and indifference,” the press freedom organisation said. “Independent journalists are vital for people and nations. If France really wants to help Africa, it should defend its freedom. And if Africa's leaders want to defend the interests of their peoples, they should be proud that a vigorous and responsible press is free to criticise them without risking prison or death.”
African teenagers dream of being journalists, the authors of the four letters say. “Just for fun, I used to play at being a reporter during the school championships,” writes Donat M'Baya Tshimanga of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who heads an Congolese organisation called Journalist in Danger (JED).
Journalists often serve as models, like star soccer players or film actors. Guthrie Munyuki of Zimbabwe's Daily News says he could not decide whether to be a lawyer, journalist or soccer player. “I saw myself as the next Mike Munyati, the late journalist for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and Michel Platini, the former mercurial French footballer.”
All four say they were fascinated by the “powerful role” the media can play. “You want to be a journalist and nothing else,” says Cameroonian Jules Koum Koum, the managing editor of Jeune Observateur, addressing an imaginary young brother. “I have to congratulate you for this choice which was also mine 18 years ago.”
“Little did I know that the media world is not a teacup affair,” points out Nigerian Ayodele Ale, a journalist with the Saturday Punch. “Indeed, it tasks the diligent. And news is not what is picked on a platter of gold. News, serious news, is not easy to come by.” Poverty is also often an obstacle. How many African children do not get the chance to go to university, not to speak of primary school? And even with a degree, things are not simple for young journalists.
Munyuki recounts that “all the doors were closed” when he started out, but he did not give up. One day he was rewarded with the publication of his first article. It was the same for Tshimanga. “I felt an immense joy to know that I was being read by lots of people who furthermore did not know me.” Ale agrees: “At times, great joys swell inside me when I see my stories being discussed by those who could not identify me, even though I was present in the environment.”
It is hard to wake up from such thrilling dreams. “Limbs have been broken, lives lost, people harassed, tortured and myself and colleagues heavily assaulted because of the desire of wanting to let the world know of our situation,” says Munyuki, whose newspaper, once the most widely read in Zimbabwe, was forced to close.
Tshimanga began his career when his country was still called Zaire. “Criticism and questioning were the best way to end up in prison, in the cemetery or at the bottom of the majestic River Zaire,” he writes. Koum is bitter about spending a month in prison in early 2005 after writing about corruption within a government ministry. “I though I had done my duty to society well, but I was thrown in the notorious New Bell prison.”
Ale was involved in “guerrilla journalism” and led a dangerous life in the late 1990s, when the military were in power in Nigeria. “Places like church, mosques, markets halls, abandoned buildings, schools or coaching centres, street corners and so on became our meeting points,” he recalls.
And when it is not the police you fear, it is being broke. “How do you resist a discreet request for a puff piece when your son is ill and you cannot afford the treatment he needs,” asks Tshimanga, who is sorry for those who “trade their independence for under-the-table cash payments.”
But it gets dangerous for African journalists who refuse to take bribes, who refuse to become sycophants. Death threats, beatings, imprisonment and constant fear are the price all of them have paid at one time or another. “Despite staying up night after night, the guard dog's only reward is beatings,” says Koum. All over Africa, journalists are still being killed in cold blood. “For our landscape, there is neither permanent friend nor foe,” says Ale. “The profession is not for the faint-hearted,” agrees Munyuki, and Ale adds that in Nigeria, “the military institution fell and the commendation went to the valiant pen.”
Koum ends his inventory of all the trials and tribulations a journalist must endure with this comment: “After all I have just revealed to you, brother, if you still feel drawn by this profession, that means you have a destiny. In which case, go for it!” Munyuki is uncowed by his experience of working in one of Africa's most repressive countries: “I say journalism has steeled me, built me and modelled me.”
The full text of the letters by Jules Koum Koum (Cameroon), Ayodele Ale (Nigeria), Donat M'Baya Tshimanga (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Guthrie Munyuki (Zimbabwe) are available on the Reporters Without Borders website (www.rsf.org).