How Press Freedom Is Under Attack In Africa, And Why It Matters
It has been a troubling few months for press freedom in Africa, with Uganda cracking down on unlicensed news organisations, Tanzania introducing laws requiring bloggers to register at a heavy cost, and Kenya’s cybercrime bill translated in some quarters as being an attack on freedom of speech.
Tanzania and Uganda are of particular concern. Press freedom in Tanzania has declined since President Magufuli took office in 2015. Four newspapers were shut down in 2017 alone. Investigative journalist Azory Gwanda has been mysteriously missing since late last year. New laws are now set to regulate online content.
“As far as Tanzania is concerned, the survival of blogging is at stake. Many blogs will have to close down as they don’t have the money to register,” says Brice Rambaud, regional director for sub-Saharan Africa at the non-profit Internews.
“Moreover, according to the regulations, anyone who publishes online content will be required to know the identity of everyone who comments on their platform. Anyone who publishes online content is required to cooperate with law enforcement officers, with no mechanisms to protect the anonymity of whistleblowers. This means the death of anonymity, open discussion and information sharing.”
In Uganda, the government has announced plans to tax social media users, while last year it set up a team of state security officers and IT experts to spy on criticism of the government on Facebook and other social networks. Acts of intimidation and arrests of journalists are common, with Rambaud saying the government is using the regulatory body to gag the media.
“There were two cases of switching off radio stations on the orders of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and breaking into media houses was also reported,” he said.
And let’s not forget Kenya, where in January the government shut down three of the largest TV stations in the country after they had planned to live-stream the symbolic presidential inauguration of opposition leader Raila Odinga.
“This was unprecedented. Never seen before in this country. And it had more than a chilling effect on media houses, now quite afraid of covering some of the opposition parties’ activities,” Rambaud said.
Press freedom under attack
There is no mistaking the fact that the freedom of the press is under attack in these three countries, and elsewhere on the continent.
“These are direct attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Governments now have more sophisticated methods of limiting information dissemination and public discussion on certain issues – one of them being the legal and regulatory way,” Rambaud said.
Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), agrees.
“Any action resulting in the deterioration of the media and journalistic environment or undermining the process to inform with honesty and independence can be considered as an assault to press freedom,” he said.
But how free is the media in Africa in general? According to RSF, there were improvements over the last year tracked by its Press Freedom Index, mainly due to the departure of some of the worst governmental offenders in Gambia, Zimbabwe and Angola. But the overall situation remains very concerning.
“On our map, nearly half of the countries are coloured in red or black, meaning the situation is very difficult or very critical in terms of press freedom. Only five countries of 48 have a rather good situation. Ghana, Namibia and South Africa are doing quite well,” Froger said.
Rambaud said Benin, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal all enjoyed vibrant and diverse media industries, yet there remained countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia where journalists have been silenced and killed for too long.
“What we can see nowadays is that there are new threats to freedom of information, for instance ad hoc internet shutdowns experienced in countries ruled by ‘long time leaders’ such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and new restrictive laws and arrests of journalists on the grounds of combating terrorism,” he said.
So what needs to change? One of the major challenges is transforming state-owned media that has mostly disseminated government propaganda into public service media. RSF is also calling for governments to stop resorting to internet shutdowns as soon as they face challenges such as demonstrations or elections.
“We think that no journalist should be arrested because he was simply doing his job,” Froger said. “Press offences should be decriminalised so that journalists do not fear to investigate and report.”
Rambaud said freedom of information and freedom of expression were human rights that are directly linked to governance, and as a result quality media is directly linked to quality governance.
“Countries like Benin, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal have nurtured and matured democracies. They all have had multiple peaceful elections and transitions in power that went well, and they have quite strong institutions,” he said.
“Another aspect to evoke here is also the weaknesses of the economy in many African countries, that leads to economic constraints of the media in the continent. The financial weakness of many media outlets makes them susceptible to political and financial influence, which undermines their independence and coverage quality.”
There is something to be positive about, however, even as governments attack online freedoms in order to hinder the freedom of the press. Rambaud said social media has “arrived strongly” in Africa, changing the way information is shared and issues are debated.
“It’s important to understand that social media works well with the community ethos of Africans. With the increase in cheap smartphones, social media is becoming more popular and more used by the day. This is a new way to pass information that can’t be underestimated in Africa,” he said.
What Froger and Rambaud, and all of us who benefit from press freedom in Africa, are hoping is that the transformative potential of digital media is not hindered by malicious attacks from governments fearing their monopoly on information is at an end.
Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.