The Perils Of The Written Word

Published 9 years ago
The Perils Of  The Written Word

Reporting on the African continent is an “extreme act of courage”, writes journalist Shyaka Kanuma in a Nieman report. The Rwandan was in exile, addressing other Nieman fellow journalists at Harvard University.

The fellowship, one of the most sought after in the world, has seen its fair share of African journalists fleeing trouble back home. Gregory Stemn was one. The Liberian photojournalist chronicled the horrors of his country’s civil war against Charles Taylor’s wishes. South African Nat Nakasa was the first black African Nieman fellow in September 1964. He chose exile to join the fellowship but committed suicide ten months later, jumping off a Manhattan apartment building, manically depressed at the thought of never returning to the country he was forced to abandon.

To be a journalist on African soil is to consign oneself to an uneasy life; be it in war zones or in fearful newsrooms. Greg Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photojournalist, writing on the tribulations faced by African war photographers noted, “across… the continent, ruthless regimes bring the violence and fear to bear to suppress the truth.”


This handful of Africans, merely plying their trade on the side of reason, is often forgotten. These are their stories.

January 9, 1994: Katlehong, a township just outside Johannesburg. Gunfire crackles as dignitaries make it beyond the rusted metal shacks of what they called no-man’s land.

Jessica Pitchford was covering the township beat for public broadcaster SABC on that day. Looking into the camera she began, “at the moment, it’s quite safe here…”

The rattle of bullets broke off the sentence. Pitchford threw herself to the ground.


Ahmed Sharif, a freelance photographer, is shot next to her; dying from his injuries hours later. On the other side, her colleague Charles Moikanyang is shot in the back. She helps him from the line of fire. He survives.

“We were just part of a group of people who happened to be invading an official war zone,” says Pitchford to a magazine a few months after Katlehong.

She wasn’t happy with her story.

“I hate the way I handled this one… I should have put it in context. I didn’t even mention that a woman and child had also been caught in the crossfire… all I was worried about was getting Charles to hospital. It was a journalist’s story. A little too self-indulgent, I thought.”


Violence was playing out across the country. In the early 1990s, South Africa was at a crossroads. Political reforms made way for democratic elections to end apartheid. Nelson Mandela was President-in-waiting.

The country’s media was negotiating a new kind of editorial freedom. Journalists were dodging bullets to tell the story of political violence. It is believed that close to 14,000 South Africans were killed during the bloody transition to democracy. Katlehong was ground zero.

Monica Zwolsman was a reporter at Johannesburg newspaper, The Star; the same publication her late husband, award-winning photographer Ken Oosterbroek, worked for.

“Looking back, I am just horrified at what went on and how people lived through that… I don’t think anyone knew, and we still don’t really know, who was attacking who.”


Zwolsman was part of an innocent and confused generation of journalists.

“I don’t think we, as journalists, had the skills [to cover these events]… It was difficult trying to get a handle on what was happening. It was never a constant, it started off with pangas (machetes) and steels bars and it evolved to AK-47s.”

Oosterbroek was a leading light in the now-famous Bang Bang Club, a band of daring photojournalists working in what they called no-man’s land – between battle lines drawn in the townships. A week before the elections of 1994, a bullet stopped him forever in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg.

“Everyone knew he was dead except me… when I got there people had just ran away and I ran into the hospital and I just saw his feet sticking out… that’s when I realized [that he was dead].”


In the book that chronicled their lives out in the field, friend and fellow Bang Bang Club member Greg Marinovich, who was also injured in the carnage says, “after four long years of observing violence, the bullets had finally caught up with us.”

A willingness to pursue a story at considerable personal risk was typical among reporters. They organized in packs; groups of foreign and local journalists moved together, finding safety in numbers.

“The local journalists knew where to go and where not to go. They could read the situation, you had to get to know that and you had to look out for each other. Even today, people are so closely bonded – that group of journalists – because we worked together and we genuinely lived through some crazy times,” recalls Zwolsman.

Back in the safety of the newsrooms, editors could merely keep tabs on their reporters, says Peter Fabricius, who was an assignment editor at the Independent. He sent a number of South African journalists to conflicts at home and further afield in the Congo; it was a difficult job.


“It was pretty nerve-racking having to send people into danger not knowing what you were exposing them to.”

These were the days before cell phones. Cumbersome satellite phones were the only way. But only a few, well-funded, newsrooms could afford them.

Oppression and imprisonment are other occupational hazards. There must be few jobs in the world where you can consider yourself fortunate to end up in jail.

Seyoum Tsehaye is one of those journalists behind bars. He began his journalism career as a guerrilla with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the armed movement that ended Ethiopian occupation in 1993.

Some guerrillas were armed with cameras and voice recorders along with Kalashnikovs. They were not objective war-reporters but they captured rare footage of battle and interviewed commanders. These fighters provided the only records of this conflict in Africa’s mysterious hermit kingdom.

After the war, many Eritrean warrior-journalists abandoned their AK-47s to staff the country’s burgeoning state-controlled media. Tsehaye was appointed the country’s first head of state television.

In the late 1990s, with fresh conflict with Ethiopia looming, Tsehaye stopped toeing the party line. He joined an “audacious” independent paper and returned to photography. He began speaking out against the renewed fighting and campaigned for democracy. He was shadowed by secret police until his arrest and detention in 2001.

Recent news of him, provided by “sympathetic prison guards”, claims his health is “deteriorating” as he is shifted from one desert prison to the other.

Still behind bars, Tsehaye won the Reporter’s Without Borders ‘Journalist of the Year Award’ in 2007.

Brian Hungwe, an award-winning journalist from Zimbabwe, is well aware of the risks of political reporting. In 2000, he broke the story of families who lost their sons in the escalating war in the Congo.

Two years earlier, Mugabe mobilized Zimbabwean troops, against the wishes of his electorate, and sent them to the DRC at the start of the Second Congo War. The casualties were considerable.

“It started with one family, their son was a pilot but they only received a knee-cap for burial. They were living in fear that they buried the wrong person,” remembers Hungwe.

Slowly, but surely, more families came forward and Hungwe began an investigation into their claims. It culminated in the “DRC War Casualties Shock” report that won him the CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year Award.

He was meticulous, even pushing for an official government response, confident that it would shield him from persecution.

“The story was true. If you can defend the truth then you are fortified. I was lucky because the truth was on my side. Getting the government to comment was difficult. They never responded although we faxed them and phoned them as well.”

Once the story was published and Hungwe accepted his award, a senior government representative belatedly denied the story.

Hungwe’s story shows there can be triumphs, as well as danger, in African journalism.

Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist who has been in and out of prison on sedition charges, continues to push the envelope. In 2007, he founded The Independent, a Kampala news magazine. Mwenda won the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2008. He owns, edits and publishes the magazine.

“You buy the truth, we pay the price,” is the magazine’s motto. Journalists from Kampala to Katlehong will nod with a knowing smile.