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Media freedom has come a long way in Africa, but it’s still precarious

Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index shows two interest- ing things. namibia, ranked

number 17, has the most improved press freedom environment in the world. And Africa, with the excep- tion of north Africa, came second in rankings on the most improved media environment since 2015.

namibia’s rise in this  rank-  ing is stunning. Among the 180 nations that were ranked, it places the country close to the top-ranked Scandinavian nations, including Finland at number one, netherlands (two), norway (three) and Denmark (four). These countries also feature in the top five positions on the united nations Index on Human Development.

Among African nations, namibia ranks higher than South Africa (39), the country with the best constitu- tional protections for media freedom, and arguably the most extensive media infrastructure on the conti- nent.

Indexes of the performance of nations on various indicators are growing in importance. But they should not be taken as the definitive indicator of the state of press free- dom in any country or region. The situation in every newsroom – or an individual journalist’s circumstances can be worse than the ranking of a particular nation.

Interestingly  Namibia   is

the home of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press. It was fol- lowed ten years later by the African Broadcasting Charter calling for a pluralistic and diverse broadcasting system in the public interest. The Windhoek Declaration is the rea- son why May 3 was declared World Press Freedom Day by the united nations. But a historical perspective provides better insight on the state of media freedom and its role in Africa today than rankings or indexes.


The dismal decades
At the time of the Windhoek Declaration in 1991 most of Africa, including South Africa, was only starting on a journey towards improved media freedom. This, after decades in which one-party states, military regimes and the then apart- heid regime had committed some of the worst violations of media free- dom ever to be visited on journalists and the media.

Among some of the worst viola- tions were routine arrests, detentions, imprisonment, killings and the exil- ing of journalists. Along with these were the bombing of printing press- es, closure of critical media houses and state control of the broadcasting system and its regulation. Draconian laws were also passed preventing the normal functions of journalists.

Lighter versions of the same vio- lations were also evident in the few African countries considered democ- racies because of their pluralist poli- tics. examples include Botswana. In fact Africa was known in the 1970s and 1980s as the continent that jails

its journalists. But it did not have a monopoly. Asia and Latin America shared the same dubious distinction. In most countries privately owned media that were editorially independent from state control were often fewer and smaller than state-

run print media and news agencies.


New century heralds new hope By the time the African Charter on Broadcasting was adopted in 2001, the state of media freedom across the continent appeared to have experi- enced a sea change. But it is also true that some countries had experienced some  deterioration.

For example, Zimbabwe had entered a period of political cri- sis, leading to a media management regime that included registration of journalists and media houses, arrests of journalists and the continued monopoly of the state broadcaster, as well as closure of a privately owned daily newspaper.

In the 1990s, as pluralist politics characterised by multi-party elec- tions took root across the continent, a trend developed to license pri- vately owned FM radio stations and television channels. Privately owned newspapers and magazines emerged. Online media also sprang up as Africa was connected to the internet and there was a hype that the future lay in digital or new media that was not easy for governments to control. The competition between state and privately controlled media expanded the space for media free- dom. In this context media were better able to strive to become inde- pendent sources of information and analysis. They could broaden public debate and dialogue, engage in inves- tigative journalism as a watchdog of the public and give a voice to a wider range of people beyond  governmentelites.

For the first time, it felt as though the vision of the Windhoek Declaration and the  African Charter on Broadcasting could be realised. This nascent pluralism and vibrancy in which some media exposed corruption and misgover- nance gave hope that the African media would now play a vigorous watchdog role that would usher in

an era of accountability necessary for democratic governance.


Push back and hostility

The 15 years since 2001 have been characterised by a growing trend towards respecting the freedom of the media and expanding spaces for freedom of expression. But the trend hides many contradictions, some of which are identified in the World Press Freedom Indexes.

There is definitely some push back by governments. Despite the end of the era of legislated one-party rule, some leaders are reluctant to leave power. In these efforts to retain power against democratic norms, journalists and the media are casu- alties. Burundi is a recent example that has been cited in the Word Press Freedom Index.

There is also a general hostility towards media’s attempts to probe and hold public officials to account. Politicians and public officials are often uneasy with regular engage- ment and requests for information. A culture of secrecy is still dominant and in some cases media legislation

restricting access to information is still retained in the statute books from the colonial or apartheid eras. new legislation meant to promote access is often too cumbersome to use by journalists or carries new ways to restrict access.

even private ownership  has not necessarily come with the edi- torial and programming indepen- dence from owners and advertisers. Commercial pressures place con- straints on journalists and editors trying to serve the public interest.

Part of the problem is that the new owners are often  politicians or politically linked individuals or groups wishing to promote their own interests or curry favour with gov- ernments for commercial gain. Cross ownership across many economic sectors by owners can also create taboos on what can be reported.

Economic factors

A factor that limits media free- dom often not discussed much in Africa is the effect of weak econo- mies. Weak economies undermine the viability of a media dependent on  commercial  advertising. They

also open up the media to editorial and programming influences that undermine their independence. In such situations large companies that dominate or have a monopoly wield power that has a deleterious effect on media content.

A culture of unethical journalism including “cheque book” journalism

  • where journalists are bought to, for example, smear opponents or divert the public from serious issues
  • has also crept

It reduces the credibility that media ought to enjoy with the pub- lic. Independent regulation of jour- nalistic ethics is necessary to arrest this trend.
Arrests, temporary  closures of media, even online media, and harassment of journalists are not yet things of the past. In some coun- tries like eritrea, the country at the bottom of the index at 180, being a journalist is an occupational hazard of the worst kind. Five bloggers and journalists were held in jail for a lengthy period in ethiopia until july late last year.

Licensing regimes are not yet in the hands of independent pub- lic-interest bodies as the Charter on Broadcasting   recommended.

Media freedom and freedom of expression in Africa is expanding. But we have not yet reached a stage where it is irreversible. Although the role of the media in creating an informed citizenry eager to partici- pate in decision making is increas- ing, the situation in Africa remains precarious.

Tawana Kupe is Deputy Vice Chancellor and Associate Professor in Media Studies, University of the Witwatersrand