Press freedom in Africa isn’t what it is in other parts of the world. However, in the last few years, the situation appears to be getting better. In a continent where the larger percent of leaders have been in power for unusually long periods, the change in political hands is benefitting journalism.
In 2018, Africa buried 2 of its journalists, one in Somalia and another in the Central African republic. In January 2019, Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela, a Ghanaian investigative reporter lost his life.
Summing up the carnage, about 102 African journalists have met gruesome ends in the last decade. Across the continent, the press face threats on a daily basis, as many are confined unjustly or intimated for publishing sensitive stories.
It shouldn’t go without mention that there are progressive laws that have been passed in a good number of African countries. But mostly, a law on paper is only as good as it is enforced on the field..
While governments in countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda show little respect for press freedom, more politically-controlled countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea seem to frown at journalists.
The latest press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders—an international non-profit organization—spotlights the difference between press-free and press-suppressant countries in the continent—African dictators.
Fall Of Strongmen
In the region, Eritrea is the worst country in terms of press freedom, a position the East African country has held for a couple of years. Out of the 180 countries considered in the 2020 Press Freedom Index, the country comes in 178th place, only before Turkmenistan and North Korea.
Eritrea is the worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, with at least 16 journalists behind bars as of December 2018. 74-year-old President Isaias Afwerki has had much to do with this suppression, having ruled the country since 1993.
The new ranking finds that while press freedom remains highly fragile in sub-Saharan Africa, the fall of several dictators and authoritarian governments in recent years.
For instance, Sudan has gone up by 16 places from the last index to secure the 179th position on the list. Zimbabwe—a country which controversial politician Robert Mugabe ruled from 1987 to 2017—has gone up one place to become the 127th nation on the index.
“Gambia has continued to progress despite some notable press freedom violations in 2019. Since dictator Yahya Jammeh’s departure in January 2017, the new president, Adama Barrow, has begun realizing his promise to create an environment that favours the media’s development”, RSF said.
Well, Yahya ruled The Gambia for 22 years.
Press freedom in Sudan has witnessed improvement, few months after the installation of hybrid government, following the ouster of despotic rule of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 when restrictive laws and iron-fist security policies were in place.
The new ranking means Sudan was only 5 points from the 180 bottom, but moved to 156, leaving 24 behind it. RSF says Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in the 2019 uprising brought an end to 3 decades of dictatorship, during which the nation was one of the world’s most hostile places for journalists.
The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) spearheaded the regime’s censorship, arresting journalists, shutting down newspapers, confiscating entire issues as they come off the press, and imposing red lines that could not be crossed, with impunity.
For perspective, the political turmoil that escorted Comoros’s 2018 constitutional referendum, leading to President Assoumani’s reelection in 2019, has led to a dramatic surge in press freedom violations. The intimidation of journalists, attacks, arrests and censorship of Comoroan journalists, most of whom have fled abroad for safety.
Assoumani won the controversial 2016 presidential election by a slender margin, but the politician had been president from 1999 to 2002 and again from 2002 to 2006. He now looks to remain in office until 2029.
Press freedom in Africa is heavily dependent on politics. In countries like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, a majority of media outlets are mainly owned by politicians and business associates of those who control lever powers. This enables governments to indirectly control various media outlets.
But even though Namibia’s president, Hage Geingob, has been in the power play since 1990, the country is the first in Africa to appear on RSF’s press freedom ranking.
The report said the country is “protected by the constitution and is often defended by the courts when under attack from other quarters within the state or by vested interests”.
For the latter part of 2019, Omoyele “Yele” Sowore, a Nigerian human rights activist, journalist and founder of Sahara Reporters was tossed from one courtroom session to another. His unjust incarceration and repeated judicial sways tested press freedom in Nigeria, a country that did not make RSF’s ranking.
In Angola, the installation of a new president, João Lourenço, in September 2017, ended 4 decades of rule by the Santos family. For a possible result, Angola has gone up 3 places on the press freedom index.
Nevertheless, tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have made it possible for a new group of information brokers to emerge online. This has undermined the democratic potential of social media platforms.