Date: Tue, 25 Nov 97 12:54:21 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: AFRICA: Journalists Use Internet To Elude Dictators
/** headlines: 143.0 **/
Copyright 1997 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Journalists Use Internet To Elude Dictators
By Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga, IPS, 18 November 1997
NAIROBI, Nov 18 (IPS) - Nigerian journalist Babafemi Ojudu says he owes his professional survival to the internet which is keeping the press in his country one step ahead of government censorship.
In the most recent crackdown on the media, the Nigerian government seized the phone lines of the weekly paper 'The News', where Ojudu is managing editor, and forced its editors underground.
"I hooked my laptop to the phones of friends and got in touch with our reporters online," he says.
To come here for a conference, the Nigerian editor had to ride on a motorbike, slip past President Sani Abacha's security detail and cross the border into Benin from where he winged his way to Kenya. If he had attempted to board a plane from Lagos, he would have been arrested and his passport impounded.
Ojudu was among participants from around Africa who attended a recent two-day African Media Forum in Kenya on media freedom and the advent of new technology. It was organised by the U.S.-based Freedom Forum.
The Forum, a 900-million-dollar foundation which this year set up a branch office in Johannesburg, South Africa, promotes free press, free speech and free spirit.
'The News' has remained on the newsstands, according to Ojudu, only because of internet access. He said that a recent coup of the paper over the censors in Lagos was an expose on the importers of toxic petrol that is believed to have caused the deaths of several Nigerian motorists and mechanics.
It was impossible, he said, to get hold of the correct information within the country, but by browsing on the internet, reaching out to sources outside the country on e-mail, the culprits and their international accomplices were exposed.
Thanks to e-mail, Ojudu and other Nigerian journalists are able to blow the whistle on Abacha's regime whenever one of their colleagues is incarcerated. This they do through the Lagos-based Independent Journalists Centre which galvanises international campaigns for persecuted Nigerian journalists by collecting and posting news on the internet.
Despite the problems faced by the Nigerian media, Ojudu was optimistic that the press in his country and other parts of West Africa would survive African dictatorships.
"In Nigeria we have the most recalcitrant media in Africa," he said. "It is not because the state allowed us to, but because we decided that we should do it," Ojudu said.
Mugambi Karanja, a senior editor at 'The East African Standard', the longest-surviving English language daily in this region, was also excited by the technological changes in the media. But he said that the bottomline in the trade was still good journalistic reporting, and his paper is not in a rush to have an internet edition.
"We may do it to have our presence felt elsewhere, but our basic priority remains having as wide a readership as possible locally," he said.
Adam Clayton Powell III, who is the Freedom Forum's vice- president, said information technology was spreading and changing the face of the media in Africa. In 1996, he said, only a handful of African countries had Internet Service Providers, but by June this year, most countries were connected.
He said that the information super highway was not going to remain an elite medium for long. "In about 20 years every family or village (in Africa) will have a computer and be connected," Powell predicted.
The cause of Powell's optimism was a calculator-size prototype computer, which he said, could soon cost as little as 10 U.S. dollars each. "Every 20 years the price of a computer drops by a factor of a thousand," according to The Freedom Forum vice president, who is a computer expert.
Technological sceptics have pointed to the absence of telecommunications infrastructure as the main drawback to rapid and widespread development of information technology in Africa.
Only about four million phones exist in sub-Saharan Africa today. This translates into fewer than one line per 100 people. But according to Powell, alongside the pocket-size computer he brandished before participants, there is cheaper and efficient radio communication technology in the pipeline that could secure fast and affordable connectivity for remote African villages.
The meeting noted that an open, free and democratic media is still missing in Africa where journalists are still censored, harassed, imprisoned and even killed in the line of duty. In 1996, a New York-based watchdog 'Freedom House' reported that at least six journalists were killed and 100 arrested throughout Africa.
Between 1985 and 1995, out of the 456 journalists killed around the world, fifty-three journalists were killed in Sub-Saharan Africa.(END/IPS/VLL/MN/14/PM97)
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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