With Somaliland’s government banning a London-based Somali-language TV channel for “instigating clan disagreements” to improve ratings, now – as ever, in Africa – is a good time to talk about censorship. The media, both African and international, immediately cries foul whenever anybody tries to censor anything. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction, from an interested party and ignores the fact that sometimes, in certain situations, the media should be censored.
Example 1: It is early 1992, a full two years before the genocide, and Radio Rwanda broadcasts a news story, based on a message from a human-rights organisation in Nairobi. The message, never substantiated, warns that the ethnic minority in Rwanda, the Tutsis, are about to attack Hutus, the ethnic majority tribe, in the town of Bugera. Local officials are interviewed in response to this story; they advise Hutus to launch a pre-emptive strike. They do. A ragtag collection of Hutu soldiers, civilians, and informal militias massacre hundreds of Tutsis. Two years later, this example was to be repeated on a national scale, with radio stations inciting the violence and even directing “interahamwe” movements; we all know the consequences. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the early 1990s saw a sustained push by Western development agencies to liberalise the media environment in Rwanda; in other words, to institute complete media freedom. But a little bit of censorship might have gone a long way.
Example 2: It is early 2011, and David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist, is found beaten to death in his home in Kampala. Four months earlier, the Rolling Stone, a tabloid newspaper, had run a front page story “outing” David Kato, among others, as a homosexual, under the banner headline “Hang Them”. Kato had successfully sued the tabloid for damages after the publication of the article, and a judge ordered the tabloid to stop publishing names and photographs of homosexuals. But the judgment did not go far enough; the news editor of one of Uganda’s other major tabloids, Red Pepper, which itself has a history of outing homosexuals, vowed to continue its campaign against homosexuals. Ben Byarabaha said: “Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, whether the publication perpetuated violence against them, it’s none of our business, let them stop or go to countries where men marry fellow men. Before the government of Uganda legalises homosexuality, our campaign against the practice will continue.” And he’s been as good as his word. As recently as 7 March this year, Red Pepper published a picture of two women, along with their names. The accompanying article said: “Our snoops have learnt that the two babes... as they appear in the picture were bonk mates”, a comment that impressively manages to be sexist, puerile and homophobic all at the same time.
The above two examples are ample proof that some censorship of the media needs to exist; it’s simply too powerful an outlet for it to be allowed to function completely without restraints. But censorship needs to be open, transparent, and in line with international human-rights agreements – not political expediency.
Failing this, as most of the world does, I’d almost prefer the cack-handed attempts at censorship practised by most of Africa’s leaders. At least you can see it coming. When Rwandan President Paul Kagame shut down two opposition newspapers in the immediate run-up to the Rwandan election last year, his motives were obvious. When Somaliland banned Universal TV, a station which champions pan-Somali independence, the wannabe country’s rationale was clear.
More subtle censorship, as seen in many of the developed countries (including many which fund media freedom and development projects in Africa, unappreciative of the irony), is much harder to detect and, therefore, even more dangerous. The UK, for example, has some of the world’s most restrictive libel laws, designed to protect individuals. These laws are so effective that a niche industry (composed mainly, but certainly not exclusively, of Hollywood stars suing tabloids and shady Russian oligarchs suing whoever so much as mentions them) has sprung up around them: Libel Tourism. As Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, commented: “The media laws in this country increasingly place newspapers in a Kafkaesque world in which we cannot tell the public anything about information which is being suppressed, nor the proceedings which suppress it.” And yet, by virtue of being largely opaque and extremely nuanced, this censorship passes under the mainstream radar.
And then there is the self-censorship imposed by media ownership. As there is less and less money in journalism, so the media becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few organisations. The biggest of these is, of course, News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s instrument of global media domination. But his model is replicated by a number of other companies, and in a number of countries. Most of South Africa’s media, for example, is owned by a few companies. As part of a huge company, it becomes harder and harder to act independently, particularly when the company itself becomes a political actor. A recent example of this is the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, where it’s been revealed that the News of the World, a muck-raking weekly owned by the News Corporation, illegally tapped the phones and voicemails of a number of prominent politicians and celebrities. This was a huge story, covered in gory detail by most of the UK’s media outlets, themselves happy to have a stick with which to beat Murdoch’s empire. Of course, the coverage in Murdoch publications such as the Sun, and the hugely influential The Times, was significantly more muted. This was one case where news values did not trump company values.
As Africans, developing our continent’s media landscape, we need to be aware that censorship is everywhere, and that it’s not always a bad thing. We need to be aware that censorship can play a vital role in the protection of individuals as well as individual rights. But we are also in a position to choose what kind of censorship we are prepared to accept on our continent. Blind faith in complete freedom of the media is misguided and dangerous, but we also need to prevent governments, corporations and high-powered individuals from wielding too much control over what can and can’t be said in our media. It’s a tightrope – to walk it, we must advocate for clear, transparent and sensible laws that govern what our media can and can’t say, laws anchored in global human-rights agreements. FAM