Free African Media. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? We think so. Most of all though, we think it must ring true. Sadly, reality's far from the case. In fact, the name has a disturbing undertone – it's not unfair to read it as an oxymoron. On the ground, journalists in Africa find themselves working in overwhelmingly unfree conditions. And the situation is rapidly deteriorating. By THERESA MALLINSON.
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF - Reporters Sans Frontières) are two well-respected international organisations that publish barometers of press freedom around the globe. Freedom House publishes a world map of press freedom, with three basic classifications: Free, Partly free, and Not free. The map has a simple legend - green countries boast a free media, yellow countries are home to a partly free media and in blue countries the media is not free.
A brief glance at the 2010 map gives a useful overview of press freedom in Africa. We don't want to scare you, but you've probably guessed it anyway: In the majority of Africa's 54 countries, journalists have every reason to feel the blues. There are 20 partly-free countries; with only five classified as free: Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Mauritius and Sao Tome and Principe. But, in Freedom House's metric, a score of 30 pushes a country over into the partly-free category. And the five African countries with a free media score between 25 and 28, indicating a tenuous grasp on freedom. Freedom House monitors 196 countries, and the first African appearance on the list is Mali in 52nd place. At the opposite end of the scale, Libya and Eritrea tie for 192nd position.
Freedom House divides its regional reports on Africa into two categories: sub-Saharan Africa, and North Africa and the Middle East. Neither region scores well when it comes to press freedom. According to Freedom House's rating system, “The Middle East and North Africa continued to have the world’s poorest regional ratings in 2009... The regional average score continued to worsen, led by declines in the legal category.” In sub-Saharan Africa, “The regional average score declined more than in any other region in 2009, led by a drop in the political category and a smaller reduction in the legal category.” And 2009 was even before South Africa's media appeals tribunal and Protection of Information Bill (or, as we like to refer to it, the Protection of Information from Investigative Journalists Bill) were mooted.
Turn to the RSF 2010 press freedom index, and the outlook is equally depressing. As RSF stated in its report: “With many African countries marking the 50th anniversary of their independence, 2010 should have been a year of celebration, but the continent’s journalists were not invited to the party. The Horn of Africa continues to be the region with the least press freedom, but there were disturbing reverses in the Great Lakes region and East Africa.”
The two organisations may use different scoring metrics, but ultimately, whatever their specific tools, they are both broadly concerned with measuring media freedom. Out of the 178 countries monitored by RSF, none of Africa's 54 countries made it into the top 20, with Namibia being the best the continent can do at 21st place. Conversely, there are seven African countries in the bottom 20 - Eritrea (at 178), Sudan (172), Rwanda (169), Equatorial Guinea (167), Tunisia (164), Somalia (161) and Libya (160).
But what do all these dry statistics actually mean for journalists working in Africa? They mean journalists risk their lives just doing their jobs – like Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist who died on 4 February 2011 after being shot by government snipers on 29 January while filming the protests in Cairo. They mean journalists are detained and tortured – like C'ote d'Ivoire's Aboubacar Sanogo and Yayoro Charles Lopez Kangbé, who have been held without charges since 28 January. They mean governments restrict the media by legislation and regulation – like Malawi's amendment to the Section 46 of its penal code, passed on 26 January, which gives the information minister the power to ban a publication deemed against the “public interest”. They mean propaganda replaces free, independent media – like in Somalia, where Islamist group Al Shabaab has just launched a television station.
Looking at the bigger picture, the connection between the lack of media freedom and the lack of political freedom is clear. Throughout our continent there are governments that aren't held accountable, elections that are rigged and ensuing protests stifled and ageing big men who cling to power until their dying days. Most importantly, Africa's poor record when it comes to press freedom means her citizens aren't being told the whole story about their continent.
But before you fall into a deep despair, there are some pockets of hope. International NGOs like Freedom House, RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists, do a sterling job of documenting abuse of journalists and media freedoms and advocating for change. On the ground, the revolution in Egypt has shown that, despite government intimidation, independent journalists – from Africa and beyond – have been willing to risk their personal safety to document the truth. Organisations like the Forum for African Investigative Reporters conduct pan-African reports on corruption, in government and in business. Today, Free African Media joins them in continuing the revolution. FAM
- Press Freedom Index 2010 at RSF
- 2010 World Map of Press Freedom at Freedom House.
- The Africa page at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Photo: Guinean soldiers, loyal to Defence Minister Sekouba Konate, ride on a truck near Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp in the capital Connakry, December 11, 2009. A swift crackdown on rogue elements in Guinea's military by Konate has restored some order and offered cautious hopes that the West African nation will not tip further into chaos for now. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
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