Saturday, June 19, 2010
Green Shoots of Journalism in Harsh Places
Niger and Guinea share some similarities and some important differences. I'll talk about Guinea in another posting, but first to Niamey, Niger.
Niger is a landlocked country that is in the midst of a multi-year drought. The capital Niamey was a sleepy French colonial town of 2000 people in 1930. It now has almost two million people, many of whom are recent arrivals, driven to the city by the famine and by a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country that the government has been trying to suppress for years, to little effect.
Economically, Niger has vast amounts of uranium (remember the allegations by the Bush administration of yellow cake being sold to Saddam?) and is rich in other minerals. There is a large Chinese presence in the capital as Beijing aggressively courts and operates natural resources throughout Africa.
There is also a branch of Al-Qaeda operating in the north and recently, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped and held for ransom for four months in that region.
There has been a re-emergence of slavery and efforts to eradicate it have been less than effective. The literacy rate is about 13% for males and half that for females. It is an overwhelmingly Muslim country and polygamy abounds. On the United Nations scale of social and economic development, of 182 countries, Niger ranks dead last. Communications infrastructures are poor, power outages frequent and internet access limited. On one day when I was there, Niamey was blanketed by a "harmattan" - a sandstorm that turned the sky and everything below it a dark blood red. At the same time, the temperature hit 47C (about 117F).
Politically, Niger seems to be moving toward a restoration of democracy and press freedoms. On February 18th, President Mamadou Tandja was overthrown in a quick coup; the army entered his residence at 3 pm. Tandja was jailed and everyone went home for dinner by 6 pm. A civilian prime minister, Mahamdou Danda is now head of an interim government with elections promised for later this year.
One of the first things that Danda has done was to release dozens of jailed journalists and to decriminalize journalism. In effect, journalistic "offenses" are now handled in civil suits.
In Niger, radio is the defining medium - not surprising in a society that can't afford the luxury of television or the literacy demands of print. Radio is ubiquitous and I was a frequent interview on a number of radio stations in Niamey and in Dosso, a provincial capital southeast of Niamey.
At the invitation of the US embassy, I met with a number of journalists and journalism organizations - whose eagerness to use journalism as an agency of civic society was profoundly moving. Young journalists, especially women see journalism as the vehicle of their own growth. It was hard not to be impressed by their fearlessness and their candor. In one session we talked about their own personal safety. I worry that the removal of journalism as an offense in the Nigerien criminal code may make them unduly bold.
The Association des Journalistes Nigeriens passed a resolution at the meeting I attended which called on the interim government to create ombudsmen for all media. It was a powerful and deeply moving expression of their faith in themselves and in their profession. The challenge for ONO and for other media agencies is to continue to be there for our colleagues in Niamey.