How Free is too Free? Across Africa, Media Freedom is on the Defensive

In Africa, as elsewhere, mass media face increasing opportunities and threats. New technologies have made it easier for producers to share content widely and cheaply, resulting in a proliferation and diversification of information sources. And broader populations can access content more easily and cheaply than ever before – and contribute to those discussions themselves – through call-in programs on vernacular radio stations, Internet news sites and blogs, and social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter. On the flip side, new competition and access to cost-free content threaten media organizations’ bottom lines. Consumer skepticism of media actors has skyrocketed as more people see media as propagators of falsehoods, bias, and hate speech, particularly when messages are critical of politicians or policies they support. Politicians – in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes – are more than happy to stoke this anger, which provides opportunities for governments to launch increasingly brazen legal and extra-legal attacks on media. Popular support for media freedom – a majority view just three years ago – is now in the minority, exceeded by those who would grant governments the censor’s pencil. This warning flag also marks a paradox. On the one hand, many Africans believe that media in their countries have more freedoms today than they did several years ago. Those who see media freedoms as declining in their country are more likely to support freedoms than restrictions. Either way, it appears that a substantial number of Africans are dissatisfied with the current state of the media in their country, at least with regard to the demand for and supply of freedoms.