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The Struggle for a Free Press in Africa

Al Jazeera America
By Mohamed Keita


In Africa, the past few months have offered troubling optics of journalists on trial for the practice of independent journalism: Peter Greste in a cage in a prisoner’s white jumpsuit in Egypt, Bheki Makhubu in leg irons in Swaziland and Tesfalem Waldyes in handcuffs in Ethiopia. The arrests and prosecutions of journalists not only chill others from digging deeper into stories, but there are also other, more indirect and insidious forms of censorship that obfuscate inconvenient truths that we should know.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, criticized prison sentences against several journalists jailed in Egypt after they reported on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities consider a terrorist organization.

“It is not a crime to criticize the authorities or to interview people who hold unpopular views,” said Pillay, echoing the “journalism is not a crime” slogan of the global campaign to free three Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt.

As troubling as these arrests have been, they represent a larger trend in Africa of criminalizing the practice of independent journalism in the broadest sense, including blogging and social media.

Developmental journalism

In April, Ethiopia arrested six bloggers and three reporters on shocking accusations of “working with foreign human rights organizations and using social media to create instability in the country.” The bloggers’ group known as Zone 9 gained an international following from voicing the uncensored views of ordinary Ethiopians under the motto “We blog because we care.” The accusations against Zone 9 bloggers were puzzling because Ethiopia, where less than 2 percent of the population has access to the Internet, already blocks their blogs.

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In Swaziland, veteran editor Makhubu and columnist Thulani Maseko have been denied bail for most of a protracted trial that began in March over a contempt-of-court charge based on articles criticizing the actions of the kingdom’s chief justice. With this case, criticism of the judiciary has turned into a crime.

Moreover, the lack of infrastructure in rural areas and absence of diverse revenue streams have kept major news outlets concentrated in urban centers, making it difficult to finance the flow of independent news. Despite Africa’s much-heralded economic improvements, paying for news content remains a luxury even for the majority of ordinary urban dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa. This leaves media houses at the mercy of government and private business interests to draw revenue, either from advertising or direct contributions. It also means more self-censorship and editorial compromises.

That is not all. Even in countries that have a robust media environment, a flurry of harsh legislation is turning reporting into crimes. For example, Kenyan authorities, embarrassed by revelations of the government’s poor handling of the Westgate Mall attack, hastily passed in November 2013 stringent amendments to the press law that imposed heavy fines for violations of a government-dictated code of conduct. The chill from the law and political pressures on media managers are certain to discourage news outlets such as independent broadcaster KTN from carrying out investigations on politically sensitive issues, including Kenya’s war on terrorism.

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As Africa undergoes transformation, the press is best placed to reconcile the optimism from economic growth and infrastructure development with the realism of persisting poverty.

Nigeria also amended its Terrorism Prevention Act in 2013 to criminalize actions that would be legitimate news-gathering activities for journalists covering the activities of Boko Haram, such as attending a meeting of the group or receiving information from the group. The offenses carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

The return of developmental journalism, a style of reporting that calls on the media to support the national development agenda, is also threatening press freedom on the continent. Fueled by fatigue from negative news about Africa and buoyed by the arrival of state-controlled Chinese media, many political leaders now brand critical reporting as harmful to stability and foreign investment.

“Journalists should carry out their duties in the spirit of patriots who have equal stakes in the peaceful development of the country,” said Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in a speech in May. “They should be less adversarial and more supportive of the government.”

As the government struggled to rescue close to 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, authorities have censorednewspapers that criticized the performance of security forces. Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Olajide Laleye went as far as to accuse unnamed sections of the press of being in league with Boko Haram.

A model for African press

Two decades ago, Nelson Mandela declared that a free press was the only thing that “can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen.” Mandela’s words would be tested when his government faced criticism from the press, but he resisted the temptation to silence it. His conduct was a model for African press freedom.

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The same cannot be said of the current South African leadership. Last year, President Jacob Zuma publicly called for “patriotic reporting.” In May he announced the creation of a Ministry of Communications, declaring, “Improved communication and marketing will promote an informed citizenry and also assist the country to promote investments, economic growth and job creation.” The government was already taking aim at press reports of public corruption and waste, and service-delivery protests, with a controversial information bill with a harsh criminal penalty for leaking and publishing state information.

As Africa undergoes transformation, the press is best placed to reconcile the optimism from a decade of unprecedented economic growth and infrastructure development with the realism of persisting poverty, growing inequality, joblessness and hopelessness among the youth, and armed conflicts and insecurity. Ordinary citizens cannot begin to grasp this mixed picture when journalism is criminalized in favor of patriotic communications for development and when protecting the image of a nation-state is a priority over telling the truth, however inconvenient. Access to diverse, vibrant and pluralistic media is essential to informed decision-making and can help spur debates about economic and social progress.

Mohamed Keita is a freelance writer, consultant and social media strategist with experience in the areas of press freedom and advocacy in sub-Saharan Africa.

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