Most African governments claim that press freedom exits in abundant in Africa. Undeniably, most African countries have included legal articles about press freedom in their constitutions, but in reality press freedom is suppressed by African leaders mainly for political reasons. Essentially, the inclusion of the press freedom in the constitution represents the change of mind, not of heart.
African leaders stifle press freedom by using different tactics. One of such tactics is enacting press laws which are too restrictive and in contradictory with the constitutions. Other laws such as the terrorist acts and secret act limit or restrict the freedom of journalists making them not do their job properly. These laws in most cases were found to be directly suppressing people and their ideas thereby making press freedom a luxury item for Africans.
Naturally, journalists are regarded as the eyes and the ears of the public and it is their responsibility to monitor and scrutinize what the government officials and powerful individuals are doing, to protect the well-being of the general public. Journalists always work to make sure that the public figures are behaving properly and honestly. Of course, the public has the right to know and they want to have access to information about what their governors are doing in their names. With this sentiment, journalists work vigorously to deliver fact based (true) information to the public to enable them make informed and right decisions about issues that affect their lives.
In fact, a free press is required to help the citizens get accurate and true information so that they can exercise their rights of control over the acts of those who govern them. A society without information is blind and deaf to even the most important issues that matter to them. Self governance (democracy) is can happen only when the society is able to have access to information and participate actively in the political processes. We can’t think of democracy and self governance in a situation where there are suppressions of press freedom and freedom of expression.
In Africa, most states attach ‘republic’ and ‘democratic’ to their official names, yet in reality the ideals of republic and democracy have no recognitions at all. African leaders include these two terms into the official names of the states they are governing just to please their western masters and get recognitions and financial support for consolidating their power.
Many times we see many African leaders shamelessly talking about journalistic freedom that media practitioners are enjoying in their countries. However, these leaders are known for their good record of putting journalists behind the bars simply because journalists have written the truth that the public should know. Basically, journalists are not punished for publicizing the truth or criticizing or denouncing the wrong doings of the government.
It is possible to say that most African leaders suppress any news and information that counters the official version and propaganda that is projected to the world. They don’t tolerate any criticism of any kind. They harass and detain journalists who attempt to raise questions about government policies, human right issues, political freedom and the like. They do this simply to stop truths or ideas emerge which draw attention to governments or powerful people or undermine ideology.As a result, journalists are not free to even to do basic reporting on these issues. They are always under surveillance and they are arrested as they speak to people.
We know that the right to freedom of expression may be limited or restricted only when a publication threatens grave harm, such as loss of life or serious harm to health, safety or environment.
Moreover, publications that are deemed defamatory, blasphemous or obscene may as well be banned. Nevertheless, African journalists are detained and imprisoned for only telling the truth to the public letting them know what people who are in powers are doing in their names. More often African governments use national security and public safety as a pretext to crack down on journalists and pressure them not to do their job responsibly.
It appears to me that African leaders understand press freedom as the right of the governments to manipulate and selfishly use the press to promote and enhance their political and economic interests. They control the media and the political space in order to project their narratives and propaganda unchallenged. For them the media should be owned, controlled and operated by the state; journalists should be serving the state and the public should listen only to what they say and propagate.
They are the one who define the TRUTH for journalists and for us as well. We have to wait for their rhetoric and propaganda to make decisions about events and issues that matter to us. For them we are ignorant and idiots. They are the one who know what works best for us. They want us to accept and swallow what they tell us without questioning and analyzing its impact on our lives. They don’t want us to speak and to challenge. Yea, they want us to remain muzzled.
They know very well that if we are informed, we will be able to critically challenge them and demand for our rights. At the same time, they know that a society that is not informed will never develop inquiring minds and cannot think critically about what is going on around them; they will be easily cheated and manipulated; never say no, never challenge, never demand even the basic democratic and human rights. Of course, a society with no information will always live in fear and will never question and challenge even when their leaders are denying them their very basic rights.
Undeniably, a free and democratic society can thrive only through freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas, the search for and the dissemination of information, the ability to investigate and question, to propound and react, agree and disagree, to converse and confront, to publish and broadcast. Freedom of the press and expression is a necessity; not a luxury. But for African leaders that is not the case at all. African leaders are often heard saying that Africans have to choose between freedom of expression and bread. But the fact is Africans need both bread and freedom of expression as both are basic rights. No reason to choose between them.
In many African countries, media are controlled by the states. There are no or few private/ independent newspapers, radios and TV organizations controlled and run by private hands. By the way, the media organizations which are often described as private media organizations in Africa are usually found out to have affiliations with the governments. Most governments don’t want to see independent and vibrant media because they are believed to challenge the government by informing the public about the evil deeds (e.g. corruption, human rights violation, misuse of power) of the governments. They rather want to see media system that can only be used as a propaganda machine in order to consolidate their power for many, many decades to come.
Naturally, governments always want to have more power, but the media always strive to make sure that governments don’t get power beyond what is bestowed to them by the public. Thus, government works tirelessly to eliminate media institutions that are aggressively monitoring that the government transparently and honestly serves the society they are meant to govern. We often read and hear that many African countries pressure journalists not to do their jobs (telling the truth) appropriately by threatening them, by harassing them, by detaining and jailing them, by intimidating them, by torturing them, by making them flee their countries and by killing them mercilessly.
Because they know that such kind of things happen to them, journalists live in fear and they do not attempt to practice honest journalism. Rather they tend to present official versions of events without making any critical judgment, without interpreting and contextualizing the issues. They merely echo the words and statements of the political leadership instead of pursuing the truth of what is happening. They do the tasks of public relation officers most of the time. They attend government press conferences and read news releases sent to them from government offices as sources of news. They don’t make any attempts by their own to deeply examine and assess to come up with fact based information. Actually, that is what they are expected to do by the state men and state women, and they are serving that purpose, indeed. Actually African journalists have got two choices-one is serving the best interest of the government and the second one is getting harassed or intimidated for doing the opposite.
.Last week, African Media leaders met in Addis Ababa to deliberate on African media and their major focus was on business development, technology innovation, leadership and ethics. However, the issue of press freedom was not on the top of their agenda though many journalists on the continent face restrictions and repressions. It is so disappointing that the African Media Leaders Forum did not prioritize freedom of the press. They instead wasted their time talking about issues which are believed to be secondary or derivatives.
According to report by VOA, 28 journalists died on the African continent in 2012. Twelve African countries have passed freedom of information bills including Ethiopia and Uganda which are regularly accused of cracking down on journalists. The Doha Centre for Media Freedom recently reported that more than 150 journalists from the Horn of Africa have been forced into exile since 2008.
It is a shame to the African Media Leaders Forum for blindly ignoring the issues of press freedom during their meeting in Addis. If the African media leaders and journalists are not speaking out against the continuous repressions of press freedom and freedom of expression in Africa, who else will?
To end, African leaders are not at all ready to permit the full of exercises of press freedom and freedom expression and there are no signals that press freedom will be protected in the near future. The future of press freedom, in a continent with more than three hundred million populations, still remains so gloomy.