In East Africa, Hostility to Press Freedom and Open Information Threatens Progress

It’s difficult to talk about freedom of the media in Africa today, without talking about the worrying events happening in East Africa, particularly in Kenya and Tanzania. Restrictions of and challenges to the media in these countries illustrate current declines in media freedom at the regional level, and reveal a level of hostility toward the media and contraction of civic space openly encouraged by leaders.

Frayed trust in Kenya

The rise of fake news and disinformation campaigns during the 2017 general election in Kenya has been well documented. Fake news originated from political actors during key political moments and were part of broader party strategies. They had negative consequences on the coverage of the election – unverified information was instantly shared by the media at the expense of accuracy. They had negative consequences on people – with individuals and communities being physically attacked – who turned against the media and lost trust in them. In some cases journalists were attacked by citizens due to this trust deficit that will take long to reverse.

After the repeat presidential election was conducted and won by Uhuru Kenyatta in October 2017, the media was caught in the middle of a political struggle between the ruling party and the opposition.  In January 2018, the Kenyan government took the unprecedented step of shutting down three of the largest TV stations in the country after they had planned to live-stream the symbolic presidential inauguration of opposition leader Raila Odinga.  All three stations came back on air after a 10-day court battle. Pressure from the government on media owners led to increased censorship and self-censorship, and to an inevitable mass exodus of senior journalists and editors from the newsrooms. Key politicians in power including the President and his deputy have become media owners and have developed effective strategies to expand their ownership of the media and control the public agenda.

Draconian legal controls in Tanzania

While Kenyan leaders are using direct confrontation and media ownership to curb freedom of expression and information, their Tanzanian counterparts have chosen a legislative approach. This way has a key word that is now starting to scare all media and civil society actors, not only in Tanzania: “registration.”

The election of John Pombe Magufuli as President of Tanzania in 2015 was a game-changer in Tanzania’s modern history. On one hand, he has been actively combatting corruption and improving public service delivery; but on the other hand, he has been centrally consolidating decision-making and limiting public discussion of government actions. This includes being intolerant of critical voices.

Three laws restricting press freedom have been enacted since his election: the 2015 Statistics Act, which imposes criminal penalties for publishing statistical information without authorization from the National Bureau of Statistics; the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, imposing prison terms and fines for the publication of false information and insulting or inflammatory rhetoric online; and the 2016 Media Services Act, which places onerous regulations and registration and accreditation costs on media outlets and journalists and gives the information minister broad powers to de-register media houses.  

The Tanzanian government has used these laws to persecute and prosecute critics, fine media houses, order stations off the air, and ban newspapers. Physical attacks and threats against journalists have increased since 2015. All this results in reduced democratic freedoms and increased self-censorship by media and civil society.

This month, in April 2018, the Ministry of Information published Online Content Regulations (2018), under the Electronic and Postal Communications Act, which may sound the death knell of open discussion and information sharing on online and social media, including blogging. 

Publishing and enforcing online regulations is arguably a more ‘efficient’ technique than even the Internet shutdowns experienced, for instance, in Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this year.  

Among other concerns, the online content regulations require bloggers to register and pay a three-year license and an annual fee, and to report the anticipated content of their blogs. Failure to register and pay by May 5th, 2018 will lead to a risk of fine, jail, or both. It’s estimated that 90% of bloggers will stop their activity – as most won’t be able to afford this cost.

More disturbing is the effective prohibition of online anonymity. Anyone who publishes online content (on blogs, forums, websites, YouTube and even social media) are required to know the identity of everyone who comments on their platform. Anyone who publishes online content is required to cooperate with law enforcement officers, with no mechanisms to protect the anonymity of whistle-blowers.

Internet cafes are required to identify all their customers and to have surveillance cameras in operation at all times. In combination, these terms mean that anyone who wishes to share sensitive information cannot do so without a high risk of their identity being revealed. Ironically, given the importance of anonymous whistle-blowing to anti-corruption efforts, this is likely to hold back efforts to combat corruption – one of the key aims of the President.

As noted by Freedom House in a recent report: “The truth is that Tanzania’s democracy has never been as strong as it may have appeared to outside observers, but its trajectory since 2015 shows unmistakable parallels to that of Ethiopia since 2005, which should serve as a cautionary tale.”

Places for hope

While these developments from Kenya and Tanzania exemplify the decline in freedom of the media in East Africa and the fact that free media is increasingly being seen as “an enemy to control” by a new generation of African leaders, one must also acknowledge that there are rays of hope in the continent.

The departure of three of Africa’s most autocratic presidents in Zimbabwe, Angola and Gambia has opened a more promising era for freedom of information and expression. In these three countries, most of the media landscape must be rebuilt and reinvented – from the laws to the schools of journalism to the very business of the media – to allow citizens to speak out and promote more inclusive governance.

The international community that marks World Press Freedom Day this week must help ensure that these countries have the opportunity and support to be forward-looking protectors of democratic information sharing.

(Banner photo: Kenya journalists. Credit: Internews)