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Fresh vigilance is needed to protect media freedom across Africa

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,  Sudan and

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.