Q&A on press freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa with Jennifer Dunham of Freedom House

Today’s date, May 3, has since 1993 been designated World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations General Assembly.  According to the UN, the theme for 2015 is “Let Journalism Thrive! Towards better reporting, gender equality and media safety in the digital age.”

Last week, in a ceremony in New York jointly hosted by the General Assembly and UNESCO, UNGA President Sam Kutesa spoke about the hazards faced by journalists today in many countries:

“These men and women go about their critical work in often inhospitable environments. From the comfort and safety of our homes and workplaces, we can learn about important issues around the world, including some dark and troubling events,” he said, stressing that journalists bridge the information gap and through that work, we learn about important discoveries and innovations shaping our world.

“Without them, we would have difficulty knowing about positive developments in the furthest corners of the world. In the same way, we would never hear the cries that are being silenced or the injustices being committed,” said President Kutesa.

He added, “We may never know of abuses being perpetrated, hostages being taken or lives brutally stolen.”

In anticipation of World Press Freedom Day, several organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, issued their assessments of the status of press freedom in 2015. Another organization is Freedom House, which published its annual rankings on freedom of the press on April 29.

Sub-Saharan Monitor invited Jennifer Dunham, the project manager of Freedom of the Press and Freedom in the World at Freedom House, to answer a few questions about the status of press freedom in Africa south of the Sahara. The interview was conducted by email on Thursday, April 30, and Friday, May 1.

Sub-Saharan Monitor: What is your general assessment of the state of press freedom in Africa south of the Sahara?

FOTP_World_Map_LargeJennifer Dunham: Interestingly, the average press freedom score declined in every region in 2014 except Sub-Saharan Africa, which registered a slight improvement. Overall, however, it’s average score (58.67, on a scale of 0-100, with 0=best and 100=worst; see full methodology here) is the third-worst in the world, behind Eurasia and the Middle East and North Africa.

With the exception of a few countries (such as Ghana and Cape Verde, which I’ll discuss below), there are several common issues that restrict press freedom in SSA, such as: constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press that are undermined by high rates of criminal libel cases or civil libel cases with steep fines; vaguely worded anti-terror, security, or public order laws that are used to crack down on critical reporting; a dominant state broadcaster that is biased toward the ruling party; pressure by politically connected media owners on journalists; and violence against journalists by state or non-state actors either while they are covering the news or in retaliation for reporting.

There have been several recent continent-wide initiatives, such as the Declaration of Table Mountain and the African Platform on Access to Information, to address certain issues; however, it will take time to see results from these. The Table Mountain Declaration was signed by the Liberian president in 2012; however, defamation is still criminalized, and journalists and media outlets continue to hit with high fines and damage awards.

SSM: Cape Verde and Ghana came in first and second in your rankings.  What makes them stand out among their neighbors?

JD: These countries generally have stronger respect for the existing legal protections for the press (and therefore fewer legal cases against journalists); less political pressure on the state broadcaster or on private outlets; low levels of violence against journalists; and a favorable regulatory and economic climate for the press.

SSM: South Africa has had a long history of a robust press, even in the days of apartheid.  What explains its decline in the rankings this year?

JD: South Africa does still have a robust media environment (as well as a vibrant civil society that pushes back on encroachments by the government). However, in recent years we’ve seen a few factors that threaten South Africa’s generally more open environment. For example, there has been increased use of the apartheid-era National Key Points Act to prevent investigative journalists from probing key sites or institutions, particularly when investigating corruption involving political figures. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of sites designated as Key Points, and, until early 2015, the list of Key Points was a secret, meaning a journalist could unknowingly violate the law.

In addition, there has been an increase in editorial interference by the ANC government at the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), including pressure to run stories that are pro-government or to not cover certain opposition parties. The largest majority of media users in South Africa are economically disadvantaged and many live in rural areas, and therefore access most of their news media content via services that are available free-of-charge (i.e. radio and free-to-air television). Such media is dominated by the SABC (which is also one of the few outlets that broadcasts in all of the nation’s languages), and thus the largest segment of the audience has access to only a small amount of news media diversity.

For more information on South Africa, please see our latest country report.

SSM: Eritrea comes in dead last in the Freedom House rankings.  What distinguishes Eritrea and (follow up) how does it compare to neighboring Ethiopia?

JD: Eritrea has lacked any form of privately owned media since 2001, when the government banned the once-vibrant private press. Subsequently, key editors and journalists were imprisoned, and the crackdown later extended to state-employed journalists. It has consistently ranked among the countries with the most journalists in prison in the world, although after releasing 6 journalists in January, it was tied with Ethiopia for the highest number in SSA, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (which has the most reliable statistics for imprisoned journalists). Most independent or critical journalists have fled the country due to intimidation and arbitrary imprisonment, and those who remain engage in self-censorship.

In Ethiopia—which scores slightly better than Eritrea but still fares quite poorly—there is still a small amount of access to independent voices and space for pushback by independent journalists/bloggers, although that space became further restricted in 2014 with the arrest of members of the Zone 9 blogging collective. (This is a good example of journalists being imprisoned under anti-terror laws.) In short, and to put it bluntly, the main difference in Ethiopia is that there are still journalists/bloggers to arrest.

(Keeping in mind that under our methodology, we are not “grading the government” per se, but looking at the environment for the press as a whole.)

For more information on Ethiopia, see our latest country report.

SSM: Could you offer some brief comments on these countries:  Gabon, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda?

I’m assuming that you have the countries’ scores and statuses from the website? If not, see here, p. 26.

Gabon: Gabon generally suffers from the problems I described in question #1; the government is extremely sensitive to criticism—especially regarding the president and his family’s long hold on power—and self-censorship is common.

Kenya: Despite robust constitutional protections for freedom of expression, Kenyan legislators passed a security amendment law in December 2014 that attempted to curtail journalists’ ability to report on terrorist attacks and security operations within the country. Fortunately, the worst provisions of this law were struck down by the courts. Mounting insecurity predominantly from suspected terrorist groups throughout the year led to authorities using threats and intimidations against the press to silence coverage. And just yesterday, we saw the first murder of a journalist in Kenya since 2009, in Eldoret; although it was not proven (yet) that his murder was directly related to his work, the journalist had written about the ICC case against William Ruto; in the past, the government had harassed journalists who had covered this issue.

Rwanda: Conditions for freedom of the press in Rwanda deteriorated in 2014 as independent journalists were frequently targeted for harassment, intimidation, and arrest. An increasing number of exiled and foreign journalists were subject to extralegal intimidation, violence, and forced disappearances for their critical reporting on Rwanda. Self-censorship remained pervasive as a result of a widespread culture of fear among journalists and acceptance that criticism of the government should be avoided. In October 2014, the government indefinitely suspended the BBC Kinyarwanda language radio service following the broadcast of a controversial BBC TV documentary about the 1994 genocide.

Uganda: The year 2014 saw a slight improvement over 2013, when the government shut down several media outlets for nearly two weeks. However, in 2014 independent journalists continued to face intimidation and harassment from state and non-state actors, often leading to self-censorship. The media landscape, nonetheless, remained vibrant.

SSM: Finally, do you have any concluding comments that can shed some light on prospects for either improvement or deterioration in press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa by the time the 2016 report is released?

JD: One thing to watch out for is the large number of elections scheduled for SSA this year. We often see crackdowns on the (critical or independent) media in the run-up to an election, especially in more repressive and unstable societies. I think we are seeing this now in countries such as Burundi, Ethiopia and Tanzania, which are going through especially tense periods.

The complete Freedom House report, Freedom of the Press 2015, can be accessed here.