Despite economic progress, too many African nations stifle press freedoms

Now that Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing markets, African and global leaders have been quick to embrace the mantra of “Africa rising.” However, it is just as inadequate a stereotype as the media shorthand that dubbed the continent the “hopeless continent” in 2000.

For Africa to tell its multiple, complex stories — to itself and to the world — skilled, sufficiently resourced and, above all, free and independent media are essential. In too many parts of Africa, however, these voices are threatened or silenced.

The first-ever U.S.-Africa summit last week celebrated the investment opportunities that abound across the continent, whose biggest trading partner is China.

Although Washington withheld invitations from human-rights abusers such as Sudan, Eritrea (the continent’s biggest jailer of journalists according to the research by the Committee to Protect Journalists) and Zimbabwe, if press freedom had been a condition of participation, far fewer heads of state would have made the trans-Atlantic journey.

Among those represented in Washington last week, Ethiopia has the most journalists behind bars, according to CPJ.

At least 17 journalists are either serving jail terms or facing charges under the country’s sweeping and vaguely worded 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

These include outspoken editors and columnists Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye who are serving terms of between five and 18 years under this notorious law, which has been condemned by both the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Ethiopia’s human-rights record in May, calling on the country to “refrain from using anti-terrorism laws as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas,” on Tuesday he praised Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn for Ethiopia’s role as a regional leader and a worthy recipient of $800 million for socioeconomic development.

At the end of July in Swaziland, the landlocked kingdom bordered on all sides by South Africa, the country’s only independent news magazine editor Bheki Makhubu together with human-rights lawyer Thulani Maseko (who published an article in Makhubu’s magazine) were convicted of contempt of court for criticizing the judiciary.

They were sentenced to two years in prison, the culmination of a legal odyssey that began with the government’s motor vehicle inspector getting arrested after impounding a judge’s car.

Although the United States earlier this year chastised Swaziland and its absolute monarch King Mswati III for its poor human rights, revoking its inclusion in the preferential trade agreement provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, it’s unclear if Swaziland’s latest attacks on the media will elicit any further sanction.

Even in some of Africa’s strongest democracies, notably South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, where press freedom is guaranteed, there are worrying signs. At Wednesday’s post-summit press briefing, it was a Kenyan journalist who asked President Obama what could be done in the face of threats against the media in Africa. His appeal was heartfelt, given the passage of two restrictive media laws in Kenya last year that impose state control and will encourage self-censorship to avoid crippling fines.

Observers say one of the laws was enacted to punish media houses for their critical coverage of the security forces’ poor response to terror attacks, including that on Westgate Mall. Kenyan journalists have challenged the constitutionality of the laws and the case will begin on October 16.

In Nigeria, where President Goodluck Jonathan consistently espouses the value of press freedom, the state has invoked anti-terrorism measures as a reason for attacks on the press. On June 6, following sharp criticism of the military published in two national dailies, soldiers and state security agents seized leading titles and disrupted sales of hundreds of thousands of copies of at least 10 different newspapers.

Arguably, the continent’s most rambunctious press is to be found in South Africa. But even there the government has grown increasingly sensitive to media scrutiny of the ruling party’s shortcomings, labeling the private press “unpatriotic.”

Despite widespread public protests, parliament passed the “secrecy bill” in 2013. It denies journalists and whistle blowers a public-interest defense, threatening them with up to 25 years in jail. Should President Jacob Zuma sign it into law, journalists and others are poised to challenge it in the courts.

While we welcome the double-digit economic growth that has the potential to transform the lives of the more than 1 billion who call Africa home, meaningful, sustainable development cannot take place without a free press to air dissenting voices, provide critical scrutiny and demand transparent decision-making.

The “Africa rising” narrative will hold true only when African journalists are free to report on both the achievements and shortcomings of governments and citizens.

Sue Valentine is Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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