Press freedom is incredibly fragile in many African countries even in countries with high levels of press freedom, with journalists still facing harassment, abuse, arrests and attacks for their work. Press freedom is the bedrock of journalism and it allows journalists to freely report and investigate, without this freedom journalists are prevented from doing their work and upholding their duties.
Reporters Without Borders defines press freedom as “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.” Journalism plays an essential role by providing citizens with information to make informed decisions about their communities and governments and in order for journalism to be practiced, press freedom is required.
Seychelles (83%) has recently overtaken Namibia as the continental press freedom leader and currently ranks 13th globally for press freedom. Rassin Vannier, Chief Editor of the Seychelles News Agency and Chairperson of the Association of Media Practitioners Seychelles (AMPS) says that the contributing factor to Seychelles having a high percentage of press freedom is due to a lack of political or social conflict.
“We are proud to be a small country and ranking at the top for press freedom in Africa and we are able to do our work with restrictions,” says Vannier. He says that the AMPS regularly communicates with the government to ensure that journalists’ interests are protected and they are able to continue to work freely. The media landscape in Seychelles is small as there are two government-owned newspapers and three independent media.
Namibia (81%) has been lauded as a beacon for press freedom, but Gwen Lister, Namibian journalist and press freedom activist says that high levels of unemployment, the sustainability of journalism, and the fragility of their democracy pose threats to press freedom. “It’s true to say Namibia has a more free and safer environment for journalism and journalists compared to most countries on the African continent. But that is not to say there are no hidden dangers around every corner, and that our democracy – like many others around the world – is tenuous and fragile,” says Lister. Adding that “with a huge gap between rich and poor and unemployment figures nearing 50% of the population, we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb that can implode at any moment”.
Shinovene Immanuel, a Namibian investigative journalist says that journalists face economic pressure, “rich individuals who we report on often resort to lawsuits that drag on for years, requiring financial muscles to defend the cases”.
“Namibia constitutionally guarantees press freedom, so we have a yardstick against which we can and do hold our government to account when it comes to the maintenance of these rights,” says Lister. In Namibia, the role of the media is respected by the public and politicians. Lister says that the government is conscious and proud of press freedom and as a result “treads carefully”.
Immanuel says that the president may get “agitated by how we report but overall, he understands that there is a need for vibrant and fearless media”. He emphasised that Namibians are proud of their media and the role they placed in advancing press freedom which ensures the protection of press freedom in the country.
“Media freedom is a guaranteed right enshrined in our Constitution and I believe this puts us as South African media ahead of many countries when it comes to our reporting and having the ability to do so without fear or prejudice,” says Andiswa Matikinca, researcher and investigative journalist for Oxpeckers and Viewfinder. However, she says that despite a high percentage of press freedom in South Africa (75%), journalists still face harassment and attacks.
“We are witnessing growing instances of the harassment of journalists in recent times, especially considering how much access to people social media grants us. I believe these incidents are what poses a threat to media freedom in South Africa,” says Matikinca.
Matikinca says that reporting freely in South Africa is not an obstacle as compared to access to information, she says that some organisations or individuals are reluctant to share information or co-operate with journalists. However, laws such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act have been helpful with accessing information.
“It is also important to note that whenever you are investigating an issue or a certain organisation, there will always be that one person who wants to do good or disagrees with the way things are being done and that is usually the go-to person when it comes to also gain insight into the issues you want to report on as well as access to information,” says Matikinca.
In countries such as Egypt (30%), Djibouti (35%), Equatorial Guinea (43%) press freedom is increasingly under threat with governments implementing repressive laws that criminalising journalism thus preventing journalists from reporting on topics that are of social concern, critical of the government or investigate corrupt activities. Countries that rank low for press freedom lack independent media and journalists are regularly harassed, heavily surveilled, attacked and arrested for their work.
“A free and independent press cannot exist in the current dictatorship in Djibouti,” says Kadar Abdi Ibrahim, a human rights activist and journalist. Ibrahim says that in order for the government to be less restrictive and for the media to become open and free “the Republic of Djibouti must first become a democracy or at least allow freedom of speech”. Djibouti is ranked 172nd out of 180 countries for press freedom and the private press is gagged and non-existent whilst the public media is fully controlled by the government. He says that the official media is used for propaganda by the government.
Ibrahim was the director and editor-in-chief of a privately owned newspaper, L’Aurore, however, it was initially suspended and subsequently banned in 2016 by the government. During the suspension, Ibrahim was given a two-month suspension and was banned from writing any articles.
He says that journalists are constantly threatened, harassed, and assaulted and their papers (passports and identity cards) are confiscated. Ibrahim says that his passport has been confiscated since April 2018. “Eight agents of the SDS (the Djiboutian secret service) raided my home, arrested me, and confiscated my passport. My passport has been withheld by the SDS for four years and I have been deprived of my right to freedom of movement”.
In Equatorial Guinea (43%) which ranks sixth from the bottom for press freedom, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has been president since August 1979, has heavily controlled the country’s media for over four decades.
“Equatorial Guinea is one of the cruelest dictatorships in Africa. Ruled by a small family since 1968, the Obiang regime controls all the most important economic sectors of the country,” says Mocache Massoko, an investigative journalist from Equatorial Guinea. Massoko says that the president along with his children, has total control of the media and that the only privately owned TV channel is owned by Vice President Teodoro Nguema, who is the son of the president. Independent media in Equatorial Guinea does not exist and “the few existing media are extremely careful before publishing any information concerning government activity,” says Massoko.
Massoko is the founder of Diario Rombe, a news website founded in 2012 in Spain (where he resides with refugee status) that publishes stories about corruption, money laundering and human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea. Massoko says that threats toward journalists and media activists are very direct, and clear and that any journalist that crosses the ‘red line’ is arrested or killed. “Ninety-nine percent of independent journalists in Equatorial Guinea, for fear of being imprisoned, tortured, killed and prevented from exercising their professions with complete freedom, live in exile abroad,” he says. Massoko says that despite living abroad, journalists and media activists receive death threats, are harassed and are often threatened with litigation.
People living in Equatorial Guinea are unable to access websites or publications that are critical of the government. News websites such as Diario Rombo are blocked and people need to use VPNs in order to access these websites. However, Massoko says “with a lot of effort, we have developed our own technological tools with our own skills to unlock access to the websites of the media censored by the Equatorial Guinea regime, as well as we have sought to implement the best possible security to protect ourselves from successive attacks”.
“On the surface, everything looks normal but when you scratch the surface, you will realise that there is still a lot to be done in terms of media freedom,” says Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, a journalist from Botswana and co-founder of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Botswana (58%) ranks 95th out of 180 and the country has seen a “decline in the most serious abuses against journalists in recent years but many obstacles still hinder their work,” according to the RSF.
Ntibinyane says that journalists are working in a media unfriendly environment and the government is suspicious of journalists and certain laws are restrictive for journalists. At the beginning of the year, the government in Botswana withdrew a proposed law, the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill, which would’ve allowed for warrantless surveillance of communications. The proposal received harsh criticisms from media activists and journalists in Botswana as well as across the globe. The harsh reaction to the proposed bill resulted in it in being withdrawn.
Journalists that are critical or outspoken against the government are monitored including his organisation INK, says Ntibinyane.
He says that he doesn’t think that there will be improvements in terms of press freedom and that it will remain the same unless there is a major overhaul of some laws that make it difficult for journalists to report. “There is no indication that the government wants to make those changes and we don’t expect them to because they have a lot to hide and our job is to expose them,” he says.
Ntibinyane says that INK will continue to advocate for media freedom in the country but admits that it is an uphill battle.
Dictatorships, authoritarian governments, and draconian laws are threats to press freedom, and journalists working in these types of conditions are at risk and are forced to choose their safety over their ability to work and report.
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