Journalists face intimidation and death in parts of the sub-continent directly in proportion to a rise in political oppression in some countries. The role of the media is not appreciated by leadership in the region’s democracies, and is thwarted in non-democratic states.
Of all professions, journalism in Africa requires courage; and the reporter, whether consciously or just doing their job, becomes an activist. Intentional or not, his or her work is progressive, moving the continent forward by providing information. Despots are exposed and incompetency and criminality are revealed, while economic and social advancement is celebrated. Even in countries where democracy is stifled, the impulse of journalists to know what story is important and pursue facts is never entirely quashed.
Each Southern African state has its own unique media landscape which is informed primarily by its political system. In South Africa, whose broadcast media dominates the Southern African region, media went from repressed under apartheid in 1992 to liberated upon achievement of democracy in 1994. However, backsliding occurred under the corruption-prone administration of President Jacob Zuma, which has turned the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) into an organ for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
Media in Botswana and Namibia are not immune to political influence. While the press tends to follow a nationalistic line, writers are free to criticise government. In Swaziland, the state owns the media but for one docile privately-owned newspaper, which practices self-censorship. Under ipso facto dictator Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s media operates in a “restrictive environment” according to the Washington-based human rights NGO, Freedom House. That organisation has reclassified press freedom in Madagascar in 2016 from “not free” to “partly free” in its assessment of gradual political liberalisation on the troubled island, and this is reflected in the press. Tanzania’s media, in Freedom House’s assessment, is polarised along political party lines but international journalists have no difficulty reporting from the country. This was even true during the tension of the disputed presidential election and the Zanzibar election crisis at the beginning of 2016.
In three Southern African countries, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the ability of local and foreign press to assess the local scene and bring news to the world is problematic. Journalists’ activities can be circumscribed by the authorities and their lives can be put at risk. Also at risk are a new breed of citizen journalists who use blogs, social media posts and internet chat rooms to pass on information and offer commentary and criticism. Governments have decades of experience stifling traditional media and are scrambling for ways to control the internet. Government information ministries are monitoring social media and have long kept tabs on Facebook and Twitter. Government news police are also studying the popular WhatsApp and Telegram. There has reportedly been intimidation of disseminators of internet news. The media may be new but the brutal control tactics are time-honoured.
Backsliding of freedom in Malawi
The reports filed by journalists in Malawi in 2016 depict a deterioration of democratic freedoms in the country under President Peter Mutharika. In its annual assessment of the country, Freedom House noted that Mutharika has increasingly shown “autocratic tendencies similar to his elder brother and former President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose repressive tenure ended when he died in 2012.” In August 2016, the country’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), the administrative body for Malawi’s Catholic Church, condemned government’s declaration of Mutharika as President-for-Life. The assertion was made by then-Minister of Culture and Sports, Grace Chiumia (who was appointed Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security in September 2016), and was never contradicted by Mutharika.
Despite his age at the time of the next election in 2019, when he will be 79, Mutharika will run for office again. His government is already targeting social media to suppress critics. Three opposition members of parliament; Peter Chakwantha, Ulemu Msungama and Jessie Kabwila; were arrested in February 2016 for an alleged WhatsApp conversation in which they supposedly plotted Mutharika’s downfall. Some media and political observers accuse government of doctoring transcripts of the conversation. The three lawmakers were charged with the capital offence of treason. Later, released on bail, they awaited trial at year’s end. Malawi’s media experts have determined that government has placed moles on social media, particularly chat rooms, in order to encourage coup d’état plotters. Despite knowing that conversations on social media are usually just chitchat and blowing off steam that does not materialise into action, government’s agents seek to acquire evidence against government critics to enable Mutharika to announce a plot against him, when he is in actuality in no real harm. Arrests would be effected and a publicity bonanza obtained by government.
“Mutharika wants a coup so bad. He wants something that people can talk about, other than his incompetence,” said political commentator Onjezani Kenani. “So he has started tasking his agents to sniff WhatsApp groups, Facebook posts, anything that will help him cry wolf.”
Government also restricts the media by awarding broadcast and internet licenses only to people with political connections, and decreasing connectivity speeds while increasing costs to discourage social media use.
In Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the mainstream media is most at risk
Professional press practitioners put their lives on the line in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, two countries ostensibly democratic but whose authoritarian leaders have never fully embraced democratic principles or the reality of democratic governance, which include unfettered criticism by opponents. In Mozambique, government has never seriously allowed the political opposition meaningful participation in national governance. The opposition has responded with an armed uprising and threats. Both sides have recorded abuses, and both sides are equally dangerous to journalists. Not just national government but the organs of state are also abusive to the media. On 10 October 2016, Arcénio Sebastião, a correspondent for the German DW news service, disappeared in Mozambique. After 30 days, his employer, DW Africa, was able to trace Sebastião to the Dondo District police station of the Sofala Province, where he was being detained. The District Police Command for the Republic of Mozambique confirmed the arrest but refused any further information. The charge later proved to be one of defamation. Sebastião is accused of insulting the police in one of his articles. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the arrest was the first time someone had been jailed on defamation charges. Previously, defendants were not jailed but were able to post bail. The arrest underscored officialdom’s heightened intolerance of the media.
While MISA provided bail that allowed Sebastião to leave jail, long-time crime journalist Peter Machava, the publisher of the online report Diariode Noticias, was fatally shot in downtown Maputo in August 2015. The killing alerted the media community that government may be moving beyond press-intimidation tactics like using a 1991 Press Law that subjects newspapers to heavy fines if courts determine inaccurate reporting. Extra-judicial killings may also be employed against critics, like opposition party leader Jeremias Pondeca who was assassinated in October 2016.
Unlike in Mozambique, criminal defamation in Zimbabwe was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in February 2016. The new media of the internet was most commandingly utilised in 2016 by the #ThisFlag movement that proclaimed patriotic pride in the country while condemning former liberation leader turned despot, President Robert Mugabe. Against such use of social media, government introduced late in 2015 a draft National Policy for Information and Communications Technology which establishes centralised control over the internet. Inspired by the ‘Great Firewall’ of Mugabe’s ally China, the proposed system will allow government to block internet content it deems critical.
Of immediate concern to journalists is that since April, when the #ThisFlag movement accelerated, 21 journalists have been beaten, arrested or detained by police while they were covering anti-government protests. Protesters themselves were harassed and harmed; and government’s second strategy was to discourage media coverage of the demonstrations. The protests were peaceful, so there was no rationale for government to crack down in order to stop any violence in the streets. This was simply physical repression to achieve a political end, with journalists targeted for doing their jobs.
News media old and new is unsafe in authoritarian environments
As the Malawian and Zimbabwean governments have shown, the citizen reporters employing new media of the internet are not in any less danger than mainstream media journalists. The only safety media practitioners will find is when governments accept the media as partners in nation building rather than treat them as political antagonists. This will require a radical change in the mindset of leadership, because the leaderships of many African countries have been in place for so many decades that their autocratic views have become inflexible. Only more liberal governments in their place will ensure the free flow of information. In the meanwhile, journalists will continue to practice one of the most dangerous occupations in civilian life.