From subtle forms of censorship to imprisonment: Media freedom in Africa 'not great'

Media watchdogs are voicing concern about curbs on press freedom.

Global press freedom has hit a 13-year low, the US rights organisation Freedom House said on Friday. Earlier this week, Reporters Without Borders warned that press freedom was facing serious threats in 72 countries.  The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) maintains that governments are using increasingly sophisticated tactics to control information and limit criticsm. DW has been talking to CPJ’s advocacy manager, Kerry Paterson.

DW: How would you describe the state of media freedom in Africa?

Kerry Paterson: Not great is the honest answer. Over the past couple of years there are many countries which have frequently been poor performers when it comes to protecting press freedom, but within the last year or two we’ve really seen some slipping in the countries that have traditionally been quite good on press freedom on the continent, countries like Ghana, Kenya, or South Africa. We’ve seen a real slip backwards from countries that used to be continental leaders.

Is there any reason as to why things are getting worse?

Obviously, each of these different countries has very different political situations, but I think local politics has a huge hand in it. We’ve seen a lot of crackdowns on the press from leaders trying to hang on to power - certainly that was true for what happened in Burundi, in Kenya, with this being an election year, you see an increased effort to clamp down and keep the media toeing a government line, so I think that politics ultimately has a pretty large role in it.

Talking about Kenya, the opposition has just appointed its presidential flag-bearer. Looking ahead to the August 8 elections in that country does the current political situation favor freedom of the press?

Kenya is certainly one to watch and we will be watching very closely. CPJ put out a special report on Kenya in 2015 looking at the ways in which the government had paid lip service to press freedom but has actually failed to protect journalists or freedom of the press in a meaningful way. Then, in July of this past year, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian and board member for CPJ, did a mission to Kenya where he interviewed many of the same people who were interviewed in our 2015 report and what we found was that by and large, you still see very much the same government pressure to toe the line. You see moves that appear to be quite obviously political but are harder to prove [as such] and when governments threaten to pull out things like financial support or advertising revenue from newspapers, then those newspapers are often forced or compelled to fall in line.  I think the media is seeing itself under a lot of pressure in Kenya, which is troubling in part because Kenya has been a leader in East Africa when it comes to protecting the press. They have a vibrant media there but it’s going to be tough and we’ll be watching closely to make sure journalists are able to cover the elections in a way that is free and fair and responsible and without intimidation or reprisal.

In Cameroon, we’ve seen an RFI journalist Ahmed Abba sentenced to 10 years in prison on terrorism charges. What message does his sentence send to other journalists working in Cameroon?

A pretty terrible one. Cameroon has really deteriorated quite quickly in the last several months. We’ve been tracking other cases since he was arrested. The ten years is obviously a completely ridiculous sentence. What was his crime? It was an act of journalism. So it is absolutely absurd that he has been sentenced at all. But he also faced the death penalty. The idea that this was the lesser of two punishments he was facing is really the staggering part. Cameroon went from having no journalists in jail to arresting Abba - I think Abba is now one of eight journalists currently behind bars in the country. We’ve seen an increase in other forms of pressure on press freedom, internet shutdowns or censorship or threats and intimidation. Denis Nkwebo, who was the head of the journalist syndicate there, had his car blown up outside of his house a couple of years ago. Journalists are really being sent a message that they are being watched and they need to watch what they say, which is, of course, in direct violation of the press freedom promises that these governments make.

To be fair to African countries, though, we’ve been seeing how US President Donald Trump is waging a war on the mainstream media there. Knowing how much influence the US has on the rest of the world, presumably this is not very good for press freedom?

Absolutely. It’s troubling. By no means are our concerns on press freedom limited to Africa. We see issues of surveillance and attacks on the press in Britain, in France, in America, in Canada. We’re seeing a real clampdown on freedoms that shouldn’t be taken for granted, but has been taken for granted in those countries. As far as Donald Trump is concerned, it is really troubling because it sends a message that it is OK to behave this way, that it’s OK to imprison journalists, that it is OK to dismiss news you don’t like as being fake. You see that he is leading less. You see that echoed by other leaders, you see that with Erdogan in Turkey, you see that with President Xi in China. These are countries that embrace censorship and are silencing dissenting and critical voices. Donald Trump is certainly not doing things at that level yet, but the rhetoric he uses and the way he engages with press certainly suggests a similar animosity towards them which is really troubling, not just for journalists operating in America, but for the message it sends to leaders around the world.

Kerry Paterson is the advocacy manager for the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ).

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