One of the least enviable tasks of journalists in the US must be reporting on how the public trusts
their work less and less. A 2018 study found that only about four in ten Americans had at least a “fair” amount of trust in the media. Also, in a June 2019 survey, a full third of respondents agreed with President Donald trump that the news media are “the enemy of the people.”
the US isn’t unique in
this respect. A study last year
by the reuters Institute and oxford University found that,
across 37 countries, trust in the media stood at only
44%. countries that had particularly abysmal scores included Hungary, Greece and South Korea.
And in Africa new data suggests citizens’ support for press freedoms is
in sharp decline.
this news isn’t just bad for jour- nalists’ self-esteem. erosion in pub- lic confidence in the media could embolden leaders with autocratic tendencies. It could also provoke violence against journalists, limits on freedoms of expression, and an undermining of democracy more broadly.
Declining support for free media
Afrobarometer, an independent
African research network, has been
tracking African citizens’ attitudes on political, economic, and social issues since 1999. Its latest round of sur- veys, conducted between 2016 and
2018, included more than 45,000
respondents in 34 countries.
Most say they support democra- cy. but there are indications that con- fidence in institutions like elections and the media might be declining.
In surveys conducted between
2011 and 2013, a majority (56%) of people interviewed in 31 coun- tries supported the media’s right to publish any views and ideas with- out government control. only 39% said the government should have the “right to prevent the media from publishing things that it considers harmful to society”.
but in the intervening years, sup- port for media freedoms has declined sharply. the most recent survey showed that only 46% supported press freedoms; 49% favoured some government censorship.
this marks the first time that Afrobarometer has found govern- ment restrictions to be more popular than media freedoms.
these declines are not limited to a few countries. echoing trends elsewhere in the world, nearly every country in Africa has seen sharp declines in support for press free- dom in the last decade. the biggest drops were in tunisia (-21 points), Uganda (-21), cabo Verde (-27), and tanzania (-33).
these responses suggest that peo- ple are reacting to many of the same changes in media environments that are causing disenchantment around the globe. these include increasingly partisan outlets, social media that facilitate the spread of hate speech and “fake news”, and politicians who find it increasingly easy to downplay critical reporting by making report- ers themselves targets.
Threats to free press
Across much of Africa, journalists and other media practitioners are finding it increasingly difficult to work. Governments in Uganda and tanzania are enforcing new restric- tions on media.
In addition, full and partial shut- downs of Internet
and social media are becoming increasingly common. In 2019 such
shutdowns occurred in benin,
the Democratic republic of
the congo, ethiopia,
Zimbabwe. chadians went without social media for 16 months before services were restored in June 2019. the government of President Idriss Déby, who has been in power since
1990, claimed the shutdown was necessary because some were using the Internet for “malicious purposes.” Many of these countries have
had broader problems with a lack of democratic accountability. but
even Ghana, perennially rated as one of the continent’s most democratic countries, has seen serious threats to press freedom recently. In June
2019, two journalists – emmanuel Ajarfor Abugri and emmanuel Yeboah britwum – were arrested, apparently due to their reporting on a powerful government minister.
Why public support for free media matters
Declines in support for press free- doms are concerning. Increased sup- port for government limitations on media doesn’t suggest that there are broad popular sentiment favouring Internet shutdowns, closures of tele- vision stations, and violence against journalists. And it does not mean that people in Africa generally sup- port returning to the days of state- run monopolies of broadcast outlets and the heavy-handed censor’s red pen.
but it’s imperative that African leaders are called to account for any encroachments on media freedom. While rhetorical attacks on the press by leaders like trump, brazil’s Jair bolsonaro, the Philippines’ rodrigo Duterte, and Poland’s Andrezj Duda have received attention for stoking popular vitriol against journalists, these leaders are also taking advan- tage of deeper and long-evolving declines in popular support for the media. In some African countries threat- ening words too often turn into action. examples include Uganda’s
“social media taxes” intended to squelch opposition voices, the tear- gassing of newsrooms in Zimbabwe, the criminalisation of reporting cer- tain kinds of content in burkina Faso, and impunity for violence against journalists.
A failure to denounce these actions could – even unwittingly
– contribute to dismantling one of the most essential underpinnings of democracy: a free press.