Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

The role of the press in Africa between oppression and complicity

30.01.2020
Article from AFRIC Editorial
While the 1990s has gone down history as the period during which Africa recorded remarkable democratic reforms, it is important to highlight the role the media played in championing this change. The media in that era was very instrumental in paving the way for political pluralism in the continent. The private media which at some point enjoyed a certain degree of independence had a strong influence on politics which contributed to advocating for multiparty politics and democracy. Countries like Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa are examples of countries where an independent and free press contributed to accelerating the transition to democracy. But today, the media in most countries is used to fuel government propaganda and in countries where the press is very critical, the government brutally clamps down and restricts their freedom of expression. Despite these challenges, the media remains at the center of politics in most countries.

The dramatic political situation in Africa over the years has led to the exposure of the press as an active participant in the political life of countries in the continent. There is an interplay between the media which acts as the fourth estate and plays the role of the ‘watchdog’ of the society and politics which is characterized by the struggle to acquire and maintain power by political leaders. As political instability grew in Africa, the activities of journalists were also greatly affected as the state began imposing repressive laws on the media. Due to fear of facing the wrath of the leaders, journalists themselves imposed restrictive measures in the way political issues were covered and discussed. This has led the citizens to question the role the media plays in promoting democracy and political stability as many claimed that it has lost its role as the people’s representative.

However, the press still has a critical role and has been mostly used by leaders to capture and maintain power while others in the opposition rely on the media to contest government policies and check power abuse. Hence, it has become an indispensable instrument used to advocate for political inclusiveness and participation.

The media’s role in political development in Africa

It is most often considered that the role of the media in countries that have a liberal democracy is to constantly check the government and hold them accountable while making sure that the masses have uncontrolled access to information. Ideally, the press is supposed to broaden the vision of citizens and assist them in making informed political choices and decisions thereby mobilizing them towards the good of the nation. According to Mukum Mbaku, an expert in governance and economic development in Africa, a press that is free and independent is very vital in fighting corruption in government and enhancing accountability. A glaring case in point is the investigative reports published by Ghana’s undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. In 2015, Ghana suspended close to 12 High Court judges after Anas released a documentary which showed the judges receiving bribes. Also in 2018, his recent report covered corruption in the Ghana Football Association which forced the then president of the association Kwesi Nyantakyi to resign from his position.

It is therefore obvious that this investigative reporting carried out by journalists in Africa greatly helped to keep the government on the lookout. Countries in North Africa and South Africa experienced a media landscape in which the press has been outspoken in exposing the ills in the countries. It is a result of this role that the media plays which has currently made them targets of government oppression who feel that their interest is being threatened.

The press at loggerhead with the government.

In Africa, the press is divided between the masses who have lost faith in the press while accusing them of supporting and covering up government excesses and the government who sees the press as a threat to its political activities. This controversy stems from the fact that in most Africa countries, public media are mostly owned and controlled by the government, hence, they pay so much allegiance to the state and would at no point in time produce reports which put the interest of the government at stake.

In Cameroon for instance, although the national television the Cameroon Radio and Television, CTRV, is meant to serve the nation, it has become a media that solely promotes the government agenda. Operating under government ownership and control, the press became separated from the people as they reported only what the government wanted them to say.

On the contrary, some private press has been attempting to curtail the excesses of the government which has resulted in a rift between the government and private media especially those that are critical of the state. The strained relationship between the press and the state is forcing governments to introduce measures which are aimed at restricting the power of the media. Most leaders consider a critical press as being irresponsible and put in efforts to make things difficult for journalists working for these media organs to enjoy the freedom of expression.

Government control over the media restricts its effectiveness

In most countries in Africa, government control over the media has become a norm and tradition. The continent has experienced media censorship for decades and the liberalization of the press is considered incomplete. In countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, the political leaders believe that a firm control over the media is the only means to stay in power. This is mostly because they know and are afraid of the powerful effect the media has on society. It is for this reason that many countries across the continent are still battling with press freedom.

Since the introduction of the World Press Freedom Index in 2013, so many African countries are still struggling to move to the top of the list. According to the 2019 Press Freedom Index, the situation in almost 26 Africa states has been badly rated. Eritrea for instance remains one of the countries where the press has been severely censored for over 26 years. The press in the country is subjected to the government with only the state media having the rights to sharing certain information because the government closed almost all independent media in 2001. In the Press Freedom Index, the country is most often ranked third-to-last with the worst media environment.

The media in Sudan also suffered severely in 2018 under the reign of former president Omar al-Bashir with an alarming figure of close to 100 journalists arrested in December. This suppression of the press has however not gone without retaliation from journalists in some countries. In February 2018 in Chad, some media organs rallied to organize what was known as a “Day without Press” protest during which all media outlets stopped reporting although this was unfortunately suppressed by the government.

In 2013, Nigeria modified its Terrorism Prevention Act and made actions that support news-gathering activities for journalists involved in the coverage of Boko Haram activities a criminal offense with a maximum of 20 years jail term.  Equally, in 2015, Nigeria passed the Cybercrime Act which according to many violated the right to freedom of expression and privacy. It was reported that arrests and intimidation in 2010 were the most common means used by the government to prevent journalists from working effectively. On the contrary, countries like Ghana are having a different experience because laws that are seen as a hindrance to press freedom are instead been scraped out. This is because most media organs are owned or sponsored by the head of political parties which makes it difficult for any form of control to be implemented.

Also, Ethiopia has recently been making process after, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed released journalists who had been locked up and restored close to 250 news websites which had been shut down. He went further to put in place a committee in charge of revising the media law of the country to completely cancel out repressive laws. Summarily, for the media in Africa to effectively play its role as the Fourth Estate, there is the dire need for the government to guarantee press freedom and abolish all the repressive laws and policies which act as a setback to media professionals.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

Photo Credit : google image/illustration

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