It has been a bruising year for African media. In May, Ugandan police seized the offices of two newspapers after they published a leaked letter alleging that President Yoweri Museveni was grooming his son to succeed him. In August, editor of Liberian media house FrontPageAfrica, Rodney Sieh, was detained for failing to pay libel damages following accusations that a government minister had embezzled funds. Late September saw the closure of Mwananchi, a newspaper in Tanzania, for running “˜seditious’ stories, and another paper was banned for three months. The silencing of Kenya’s press has gotten tougher after local media reported the members of the army had looted Westgate after the massacre. Throughout the year, South Africa’s media industry has been up in arms about a secrecy law which could hamper their ability to expose government corruption.
And these are the more liberal environments. Reporters without Borders – an NGO which “defends the freedom to be informed and to inform others throughout the world“ – has flagged Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as critical trouble zones, citing the situation in Angola as also deteriorating. Human Rights Watch issued a report in August calling on the attorney general to drop a cluster of criminal defamation cases against an investigative journalist, Rafael Marques de Morais, whose blog exposed high-level corruption cases and human rights violations. Ethiopia, meanwhile, ranks 137th out of 179 countries in the 2013 index, and critics say that a 2009 anti-terrorism law has been invoked to justify the detention of journalists critical of the government.
Despite this, two things are worth stating. First, continentally Africa has performed well when it comes to media freedom to date. In the Reporters Without Borders Freedom of the Press Index for 2013, Ghana ranks higher than the US, Namibia beats Canada and Botswana surpasses Japan. South and East Asia appear much more troubled regions, with the likes of Vietnam, China and Pakistan ranking much lower than the bulk of the African continent. Only a handful of Africa’s most troubled states – Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan – are in the bottom 10 globally.
Secondly, it’s not only the wealthier African countries which are doing well. Niger is a strong performer, especially since 2011. Over forty private newspapers compete with a state-run daily, and three private television stations operate alongside two state run stations. A June decree decriminalised so called media offenses. No reports have surfaced of the government trying to inhibit foreign journalists when covering sensitive events in the north.
Media houses have achieved real gains on tiny budgets. Mabvuto Banda, a Malawian journalist writing for the Nation newspaper, unearthed evidence that a former education minister used public funds for his wedding. He became the first cabinet minister to be dismissed in the country’s history. Kenya’s Anglo Leasing scandal has played out in depth in national newspapers. Ghana’s legal review of President John Dramani Mahama’s contested presidency was publicly broadcast, and in Liberia, a local media NGO tracked and reported on the progress of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government’s “150 day” plan after the 2011 elections.
Media houses are also helping drive up education and awareness. In north eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rural high frequency radio stations are protecting civilians from violence while in Nigeria, the Securities and Exchange Commission is working with the Nollywood industry to improve financial literacy. In Mozambique, national independent newspaper @Verdade covered the 2011 by-election in unprecedented detail, communicating observer updates in real time on its live blog and through Twitter updates which the electorate could receive as text messages. It monitored the electoral registration process this summer too, so that problems that hindered registration – such as malfunctioning printers – did not go unnoticed, and public outcry forced the government to resolve them quickly.
The media has not always been a force for good, and on occasion, they have worked against the public interest. Rwanda’s genocide was largely orchestrated through local radio stations, and the current International Criminal Court investigations of Kenya’s 2007/08 post-election violence includes a trial of Joshua arap Sang, a radio presenter, for charges of whipping up ethnic hatred on the Kalenjin-language radio station Kass FM.
Professional standards vary, and baseless accusations, libellous claims and shoddy reporting are still common. In Kenya, most media houses employ entertainers without journalism training, and “˜statement journalism’ has replaced the ethical news gathering process, according to Denis Galava, managing editor at Nation Media Group – journalism awards reward emotive reporting rather than old-fashioned, balanced news gathering.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been lauded for her country’s liberal approach to media in times past – and picked up a Friend of the Media in Africa award from the African Editors Union in 2010. Liberia has been one of the most open media environments in the world relative to its income level, ranking above Brazil and Georgia in the latest Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index.
Johnson Sirleaf has also started hitting back on what she calls poor journalism. In an interview with This is Africa, she pointed out that a corruption report by Global Witness was discussed in the media as though it was a financial audit, but it was actually a process audit – an important distinction. “That audit showed the weakness of our bureaucracy, [it] did not take certain measures – [but] it was a process audit. People did not understand that, and thought it was a financial audit. We passed the financial audit test. So if you look at Transparency International today and you look at the record of Liberia, we see that each year we have improved in the fight against corruption,” she argues.
As mentioned earlier, there is also the case of FrontPage Africa, a leading national newspaper that was recently closed down its editor in chief Rodney Sieh incarcerated for libel charges which he refused to pay. While in prison, he contracted malaria, and was recently let out on compassionate grounds. In his stinging New York Times article, he expressed grave doubts about the realities of media freedom on the ground.
The president, for her part, admits that both the government and the media need to step back and take stock, but does not hesitate in putting forward her side of the story. “The media need to be more responsible so that their rights are protected. They need to do self-censorship through the press union,” she said. The government, in turn, is eliminating draconian anti-press laws, and has signed the 2007 Table Mountain agreement supporting press freedom in Africa. But Johnson-Sirleaf warns that if the media does not maintain high standards of investigative reporting, it could see its freedoms curtailed by subsequent governments. “There is going to be an administration that will follow me. I’m open, I’m committed, I will uphold the freedoms of everybody, but if they abuse the freedom, in the administration after me you could have some serious reversals,” she says.
Other leaders interviewed by This is Africa expressed frustration at media coverage which they considered to be ill-informed and unprofessional. Zambia’s vice president, Guy Scott, complains about a letter published by a group of Zambian Catholic bishops which raised concerns about the country’s political climate, claiming the government had conducted abductions, arrests and torture of separatists in Barotseland, in the country’s Western Province.
Mr Scott points out that a group of foreign ambassadors went to the region and found that the allegations were untrue – the people in question were at home, or they had been arrested and charged and were due in court. “And the priests just said: “˜Oh sorry’,” recalls Mr Scott. “But when you’ve got people spreading rubbishy stories is it poor journalism, or is it dangerous? People who spread these stories are a curse and I don’t know where the cut off line is, between saying that this is treason, or this is just incompetent reporting.”
Journalists, for their part, have plenty of gripes. Even Uganda, a historically open media environment, is now becoming more repressive, according to sources on the ground. While the country’s legislation is strong, there is a parallel reality on the ground, according to Don Wanyama, managing editor of the Daily Monitor. He cites shutdowns, denial of information and investigation of journalists. Interestingly, it is the strength of Uganda’s judiciary – when Monitor journalists have been taken to court, they have not lost a single case, according to Mr Wanyama – which may explain why the government has resorted to the most brazen crackdowns in the recent Monitor case.
Most reporting of Africa’s media wars has focused on the most hard-hitting cases – arrests, shut downs and criminal charges. But governments are also accused of subtler means of control. Mr Galava says that, by virtue of government control of several state corporations and ministries which have heavy advertising budgets, the government uses threats of withdrawal of advertising contracts against the media whenever corrupt practices within it are revealed.
Squeezing revenue is also a tactic employed by the government in Mozambique, according to critics. MCel and Vodacom no longer advertise in @Verdade – the critical, independent newspaper – and other independents like CanalMoz and Savana are feeling the pinch as advertisers pull out. Journalists say they are being forced to adopt a “˜press release’ style of journalism.
How will this affect @Verdade’s ability to build on its pioneering election reporting model? Editor Erik Charas has his doubts. “˜The police and National Election Commission are on the ruling party’s side, so even in big cities they will try to prevent much reporting,” he says, identifying many “blind spots for election rigging” where an absence of press or observers will leave the door open for the ruling party to use “fraud and intimidation” to swing the vote in their favour. @Verdade will try its best for “˜citizen reporting’ instead.
The idea, Charas explains, is to “have as many eyes as possible to see and report irregularities. The media can’t be everywhere. But the people are.”
This article is based on research and interviews carried out by This is Africa, a publication from the Financial Times, for its project Africa’s Reformers, supported by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.
Adam Robert Green is senior reporter with This is Africa.