Did you know they have “press rallies” in Malawi? That the media in Senegal is relatively free, but doesn't always report the news responsibly? That most of Kenya's media is owned by politicians? These are just a few of the many interesting – and chilling – facts and opinions that came to light at the panel discussion. But the overwhelming message is that African journalists have a lot to say – and are eager to explore ways that will allow them say it without fear of repercussions. By THERESA MALLINSON.
The “Freeing African media: democracy and the role of media in Africa” panel discussion, held on Wednesday morning and hosted by Free African Media, and the African Regional Media Hub, provided a platform for journalists from African countries to share their experiences – and offer each other advice. As Free African Media deputy editor and moderator of the panel Phillip de Wet put it: “(We need) to get that conversation going: So we can talk to each other; so we can learn from each other; so we can share our experiences; so we can understand the problems we face in our various countries and how we can overcome them in the interests of democracy.”
The main themes of the morning's discussion were the relationship between media and democracy, the role social media played in fomenting revolution North Africa, the difficulties of working in countries where much of the media is state-owned, the issue of self-censorship and the levels of harassment faced by journalists in different countries.
Panellist Francis Ikome, head of conflict prevention research at the Institute for Security Studies, spoke about “the important and symbiotic relationship between media and democracy, particularly on the continent”. He referred to the role the media played in the liberation of African states, but cautioned how the aggressive nature of many African regimes – particularly in the last decade or so – has brought about self-censorship.
The second panellist, Khadija Patel, editor of Al Huda magazine, and a columnist for The Daily Maverick, discussed the role social media played in the Egyptian revolution, placing particular emphasis on the way in which broadcaster Al Jazeera used social media to build a bridge between voices on the ground and traditional media. “The focus... was on what the people wanted,” she said. Thus the promotion of democracy became a part of the (independent) media coverage.
Scott Baldauf, the final panellist and the Christian Science Monitor's Africa bureau chief, reminded the audience that promoting media freedom is an ongoing project, even in countries such as the US. “We often forget that Constitution that guarantees these freedoms is a very fragile document; it is just a piece of paper; and at the end of the day the freedoms that we express, that we have, are those that have to be fought for every single day, when we are writing stories, when we are casting votes, when we are challenging authority both as voters and as journalists,” he said.
Journalists from Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe participated via video conference from the US embassies in their respective countries, and when discussion and questions were opened up to the floor, they were not shy in their views or asking difficult questions. A participant from Kenya wanted to know how to go about separating politics from journalism, when many of the media houses in Kenya are owned by politicians. A participant from Malawi raised the issue of most media being controlled by the state and the resultant loss of confidence in the public or mainstream media. The Swaziland contingent also voiced concerns about the ability of the media to nourish democracy, when it was controlled by the state. Regarding social media, a journalist from Zimbabwe pointed out the risk that using these platforms posed for human rights activists in tyrannical regimes.
There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but then, journalism has never been an “easy” profession. Ikome noted: “Journalism is a calling; it's not one of the most comfortable jobs, because you are always exposed to the rough of the political leaders, political elite, especially in the African context.” He also made the point that social media platforms offer a wonderful opportunity for journalists to make a difference and bring about real change, as they are less amenable to censorship than traditional media.
The discussion ended with quick statements from each country's representative about whether they feel they have the freedom to operate right now. The answers were, mostly, depressing and pointed to lots of work still to be done in opening up spaces for media freedom on the continent. In Kenya, freedom of expression and access to information are guaranteed by the new constitution; nonetheless, “soft harassment” of journalists still takes place. Malawi is currently facing a difficult time in terms of media freedom. Although the 1994 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, as new law that “gives powers to the minister to ban any publication that he deems to be against the public interest”, which is inconsistent with the constitution. The president has also instituted “press rallies”, where journalists are invited to ask questions, but in an intimidatory situation where they are surrounded by the ruling party faithful.
In Swaziland, the question of media freedom is contentious, a Misa representative said. Despite the fact that the country had a number of cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists last year, the journalists themselves are reluctant to talk about this. “The culture of fear manifests itself in the media,” he said. Zimbabwean journalists are particularly worried about the impending elections, and the “culture of impunity” that allows attacks on the media to go unchecked. “Only last week we had two journalists being arrested under the country's repressive media laws. We're afraid that as we go towards the elections, these kinds of crackdowns are going to intensify, judging from past experiences,” said a Zimbabwean journalist.
So, what are we going to do about it? The way forward was perhaps best summed up by Baldauf's closing remarks. “In terms of media freedom, a lot of this is going to depend on the ties we make with each other, the way in which we look after each other and advocate for each other's rights. If we see something happening, even if it's not affecting us personally, we need to see it as happening to us and affecting all of our rights,” he said. “If there's a crackdown in Zimbabwe it needs to be something that we let each other know about, that we report about it ourselves, if we can... that we get the word out. That's one tool we have at our disposal.” FAM
Theresa Mallinson is a South African journalist, and the managing editor of Free African Media. What drives her is a commitment to making “Free African Media” reflect reality, rather than an ideal. When she's not working, which is very rarely, she enjoys travelling, and would like to visit more countries in Africa. You can follow her on Twitter at @tcmallinson.
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