Many regions in Africa, particularly West and Central Africa, have seen an exponential rise in transnational organised crime in recent years. These include corruption and various illicit dealings, particularly in sectors such as the extractive industry, the exploitation of natural resources, wildlife trafficking, infrastructure development and foreign investment.
The impact of this on development has been significant. Perceptions regarding livelihood opportunities and the quest for better living standards have led to an exodus of young people, particularly to Europe, which in turn has fuelled human trafficking.
Efforts to address this surge in cross-border crime are generally led by law enforcement agencies, and sometimes by non-state actors. Among the latter, the media play a significant role in raising awareness and mobilising public opinion – particularly through investigative journalism.
Unfortunately, this role is limited in West and Central Africa. Reporting on organised crime is challenging and dangerous, as journalists in these regions face legal hurdles and political intimidation. At the legislative level, the media have to navigate particularly restrictive legal regimes with regard to access to information, libel and defamation.
The right of access to information enables any citizen to make official requests for information held by public bodies. It is particularly important for media practitioners and press freedom. But unlike the majority of developed countries, only 21 of Africa’s 55 countries have right to information laws. This includes eight countries in West Africa, but none in Central Africa.
In Cameroon, for instance, the 2016 Penal Code addresses offences against public authority and defines contempt of the president (and foreign heads of state), public bodies and public servants. These are punishable by fines of 20 000 to 20 000 000 CFA Francs (€31 to €31 000), or imprisonment of six months to two years.
The definitions of contempt and defamation are open to broad interpretation, leaving journalists and investigators at risk. Contempt, for instance, includes ‘any defamation, abuse or threat conveyed by gesture, word or cry uttered in any place open to the public, or by any procedure intended to reach the public.’ Similarly, ‘defamation’ is ‘any injury to the reputation or honour of another by imputations, direct or indirect, of facts which he is unable to prove (…) including persons guilty of defamation in print or audio-visual media’.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, journalists are often placed in ‘preventive detention’ to disrupt investigations. The country’s 1996 Press Law prohibits insulting the head of state (Section 77), whereas the Penal Code provides for a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine for anyone who makes ‘slanderous denunciation, in writing or verbally, to a judicial authority or a public officer with authority to act thereon’ (Section 76).
Journalists have paid heavy prices for their investigative work. In the Gambia, for example, journalist Ebrima Manneh was arrested from his newsroom on 7 July 2006 for writing articles critical of the government of then President Yahya Jammeh. His whereabouts remained unknown until February 2017, when the government informed his family that he was no longer alive, but failed to disclose the circumstances of his death or the location of his remains.
Organised crime, by nature, needs secrecy and discretion – which investigative reporting, on the other hand, strives to uncover. In this context, perpetrators of organised crime can thrive wherever investigative journalism is threatened, as they go unnoticed and unchallenged.
Investigative journalism promotes accountability and works to advance public interest. It relies, in part, on the methodical collection of information over a long period of time. In West and Central Africa, a few non-governmental organisations and press institutions are working to develop the sector, principally in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria. But in most cases, journalists lack the relevant skills.
Besides the challenge of capacity, investigative reporting in West and Central Africa on TOC faces the added handicap of limited time and financing to carry out cross-border investigations in multiple countries. There are few truly independent media houses, while private investment in media is low. Public subsidies to support the press are also very rare.
For these reasons, reporting on organised crime in West and Central Africa lacks the robust punch seen in for places like South Africa or Europe where, for example, reporting by France’s Mediapart has been at the forefront of influential investigation for 10 years now.
Moreover, in West and Central Africa there appears to be a sense of public fatigue related to political or financial scandals uncovered by investigative journalism. This compounds a deep culture of impunity for perpetrators of corruption or other forms of organised crime.
For example, the global investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – known as the Panama Papers – revealed the involvement of a range of African personalities, including Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote of Nigeria. But this did not lead to any particular public outcry or outrage, and Dangote is still one of Africa’s most admired and popular personalities.
Yet, investigative journalism continues to be relevant and is more needed than ever in the fight against transnational organised crime in West and Central Africa. Stakeholders seeking to boost investigative journalism often focus on capacity-building, but far more must be done.
Governments and their international partners need to address the repressive ecosystems in which investigative media operate, working with human rights organisations and advocacy groups. Only then will the fight against organised crime be seen an issue that affects all citizens, and yield effective and lasting results.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT regional organised crime observatory coordinator – Central Africa, ISS