Has COVID-19 changed the narrative on press freedom in Africa?
Governments worldwide are introducing measures to stop the spread of false news relating to the Corona Virus Disease, or COVID-19. Although arguably well intentioned, these changes are viewed as a pathway to the implementation of repressive laws against press freedom. However, COVID-19 is not a sudden catalyst for crackdowns on journalists and media houses. Countries accused of increasing repressive legislation around communication of news have already set the wheels of violations in motion. COVID-19 has merely shone a spotlight on what has been happening for years.
Press freedom comes in different forms across Africa. However, the word “freedom” is a tenuous concept. The lack of uniformity in terms of constitutional mandates protecting press freedom are testament to the limits on journalistic integrity and expression in many African states. Violations of freedom are commonplace, despite some positive gains on the World Press Freedom Index. Violations include censorship, arrests and physical violence, which are often ignored by the state. Money also buys silence. Some newspapers are bought to ensure they toe a political line while state-owned media means the state often has the means to manipulate information.
However, a different beast has reared its head and now threatens the remnant threads of democratic protection of the press. COVID-19, the world’s current primary menace, has made limits on press freedom become more of a reality across the continent. The disease is used as a tool to stop the spread of fake news, but this move, in some countries, is a move to silence the press.
World Press Freedom Index
The release of the World Press Freedom Index coincides with the UN World Press Freedom Day on Sunday 3 May 2020. The day is a celebration of the existence of free press and a drive to promote journalism without fear. It strives to highlight the need for independent journalism free from influence, whether political and commercial.
The World Press Freedom Index established by Reporters without Borders (RSF) gives us the figures on state limitations on press freedom. The colour coding on the Press Freedom Map ranges from good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black). In Africa, 25 out of 54 states appear in red or black indicating that journalists, news houses and online portals in these states work in dangerous conditions.
"The disease is used as a tool to stop the spread of fake news, but this move, in some countries, is a move to silence the press."
The states that fall in the good to problematic range have more promising statistics around certain elements of press freedom. The best performer in Africa is Namibia, which is ranked 23 out of 180 states and enjoys constitutional protection against threats to the media. Cabo Verde, Ghana and South Africa rank 25, 30 and 31, respectively.
However, concerns still exist in these states. Cabo Verde’s media houses are largely state owned, for example, while in Ghana, investigative journalists are frequently threatened and cases of police aggression against journalists are often ignored. In South Africa, press freedom is safeguarded by the constitution; however, journalists are harassed, intimidated and bullied by policemen, politicians and the public, often for investigating those in power.
Press freedom at face value
The Index is a timeous, critical intervention needed to show the global community the threats that journalists and media houses face throughout the world. On the African continent, press freedom is precarious. The nature of governance, the irregular growth of democracy and the rise and fall of authoritarian regimes has resulted in a number of ups and downs on the index, meaning an increase or decrease in positions, either due to reforms or increased repression.
Analysis from the Index highlights some of the more noteworthy improvements due to the collapse of authoritarian governments and autocrats. These include Angola (up three to 106), Ethiopia (up 11 to 99), The Gambia (up five at 87), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC – up 4 to 150), Sudan (up 16 to 159), and Zimbabwe (up one to 126). Judging by figures alone, it appears as if these states have relaxed restrictions to an extent. However, the reality on the ground is often quite different.
There is, however, a worrying trend in several states where press freedom is being undermined even further. The media in Tanzania (down six to 124) and Benin (down 17 to 113) are both at significant risk of losing autonomy, as arrests, detentions and harassment continue to increase. The growth of legislation which includes broad terms to limit freedom of news and information, to “prevent” false news, is equally worrying as there is no clarity around limitations on free press.
Arnaud Froger, the Head of the Africa desk at Reporters without Borders, weighed in on the complexity of issues coming out of this year’s index, considering the already existing repressive tendencies in many countries.
Nigeria (up 5 to 115), he notes, is one of the more concerning cases from this year’s index, considering the existing media pluralism Nigeria enjoys. Nigeria has become a dangerous place for journalists, who suffer continuous attacks and arbitrary arrests. Of greater concern is the fact that journalists are dying in Nigeria, without any recourse or investigation as to who is responsible. In Algeria, over the past year and half, there has been an increase in harassment, detention and jail sentences for journalists, exacerbated by the unstable political environment.
"RSF has recorded 69 accounts of attacks against journalists, including 24 arrests and 20 assaults on journalists by policemen over the last five weeks."
Angela Quintal, the Africa Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, spoke to us about the trends in violations over the years and in this year’s Index. The challenge remains, she notes, in how governments use anti-state charges against journalists. The use of legitimate terrorism and cyber-crime legislation is drafted and implemented in such a way that the language used is broad enough to use against anyone.
This becomes a threat to media freedom, as the legislation can implicate journalists as critics or detractors.
Quintal gives us the example of the anti-terrorism law in Cameroon. When it was implemented in 2015, the legislation was so broad that anyone with an opinion was targeted by the provisions in the law. Quintal’s piece for Good Governance Africa, “ The ultimate form of censorship” draws attention to the blatant abuse of cybercrime and terrorism laws in many states, including the detention of Cameroonian news anchor Samuel Wazizi, who has not been seen or heard from since August last year.
Quintal also recounts the story of Jones Abiri in Nigeria, arrested in July 2016 and detained without trial for two years. He was denied access to his family and lawyers and his wife and sons believed he was dead. After two years of local and international pressure, Abiri was finally brought before a court. Although his case was dismissed on technical grounds by a court in Abuja in 2018 and another court awarded him damages, charges were reinstated last year and Abiri remains on trial.
COVID-19 – a cause for crackdown or a cover up?
The COVID-19 pandemic has given authorities a green light to control public information through the adoption of State of Emergency legislation. False news is a threat to public health, as many fake remedies and cures have surfaced, along with incorrect information shared via social media platforms. However, COVID-19 is not a sudden catalyst for crackdown. In fact, authorities who have covered up the truth behind repression have now been thrown into the spotlight for their attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19 news.
Some journalists who are reporting on the government failing in the fight against COVID-19 have been arrested under the loosely applied notion of public good. A key example of this is in Zimbabwe. On the 27th of March this year, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Ndavaningi “Nick” Mangwana, communicated a message from President Emmerson Mnangagwa via Twitter, stating: “Legal instruments are being put in place to deal with and punish those who cause unnecessary alarm and despondency through social and other media. During this emergency, we need to act responsibly.”
Yet, government scrutiny is a tenet of a healthy democracy and the function of a healthy press.
Quintal notes that we have now seen countries turning regulation on disinformation into crime, which could consequently be used against journalists. The criminalisation of false news in South Africa is one such example, mandated under the National Disaster Management Act, which is separate from the constitutional mandate for press freedom. Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Botswana, eSwatini, and Zimbabwe have followed in South Africa's footsteps.
While governments may need to control information shared on the virus, the balance between trying to curb the spread of false information and controlling the public narrative can sway dangerously towards the suspension of rights.
Froger also points out that there should not be a monopoly on information. Journalists and the media have been recognised as essential services. However, security forces are not made aware of this and often journalists are harassed or assaulted for not respecting lockdown conditions.
RSF has recorded 69 accounts of attacks against journalists, including 24 arrests and 20 assaults on journalists by policemen over the last five weeks. There is a significant increase in threats, intimidation and the introduction of new legislation to control the spread of information. Trends show that governments and security forces are emboldened to use using COVID-19 as a cover. The CPJ has seen an increase in attacks and arrests as well. The great concern is that placing a journalist in jail may become a death sentence because of the spread of COVID-19 – a disaster waiting to happen in overcrowded prison systems throughout the continent. The greater concern is if the increase in repression will remain the status quo, even after the pandemic lessens to a degree. Only a few constitutions are robust enough to reassert suspended freedoms that the crisis has necessitated. However, the stark reality is that the COVID-19 health crisis is not the catalyst for increased repression, but a way to navigate what the situation has become.
(Main image: An Algerian policeman restrains a protester participating in a rally organised by journalists against alleged censorship of coverage of protests against a fifth term for veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers on 28 February 2019. Algerian police arrested a dozen journalists participating in the rally, as around 100 print and broadcast journalists, working for both state-owned and private outlets, joined the demonstration in central Algiers against reporting restrictions they say have been imposed by media bosses on the protests that broke out last Friday - Rad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.