Freedom of the media is the cornerstone of a just and democratic society, promoting socio-economic and political development. However, Eastern African countries appear to have fashioned press freedom for the sake of complying with international obligations.   

Analysis of existing international treaties and laws and policies contend that freedom of the media, freedom of expression and access to information have been classified as human rights that countries must protect for peace and stability to prevail.

It is against this backdrop the United Nations found it imperative to make a campaign for journalists’ safety an integral part of its campaigns for good governance, inclusivity, peace, and justice.

Report on safety

To safeguard freedom of the media as a catalyst for democratic governance, UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists, the Secretary General is required to annually give a report to the General Assembly on safety of journalists from all members. In this regard, member countries are required to file their reports, detailing cases of threats to journalists and progress made in securing media freedom by duty bearers.  

African countries, which have ranked low in press freedom index conducted by Reporters Without Borders(RWB) as well as safety of journalists’ report released annually by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ,) have for reputation sake, put in place pro-free-media-laws and policies.

African Human and Peoples’ Rights Charter outlines access to information and freedom of expression as key pillars in the journey to protect human rights by promoting good governance on the continent.

All 54 African Union member states have ratified African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, that among other things, safeguards freedom of expression and access to information as fundamental human rights.  This has to a larger extent compelled African countries to enact laws that are consistent with the charter even though implementation remains a big challenge.

Violation of Journalists’ rights 

In Eastern African, Ethiopia led the pack in 2020 World Press Freedom Index, coming at position 99, thanks to ongoing political reforms being championed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that stopped arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists. Ethiopia has over the past decades recorded the worst cases of violation of freedom of the media, if the number of journalists in prison was anything to go by.

In Eastern Africa, factors affecting levels of press freedom vary from one country to another, leading to massive layoffs, exile, disappearance, killings and imprisonment of journalists. 

Some countries in the region — Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burundi — have seen a number of journalists either forced into exile or cool their heels in jail. Harsh and challenging media environment has been exacerbated by punitive laws, weak regulatory regimes, physical attacks, political interference, state-controlled advertising, cross-media ownership, regulation regime and investment in the media industry by political elite. 

Emerging threats

With the debate in these countries now shifting to media sustainability in the wake of changing business models that has exposed the soft underbelly of media houses across Eastern African region, governments continue to review policies from time to time in efforts to deal with ‘emerging threats’ in the media.

In Eastern Africa, Kenya retains her position as the beacon of media growth even though the country is still struggling with six out of seven key media freedom indicators that has seen massive layoffs over the past five years to cushion the media from shrinking revenue.

Save for constitutional guarantee and declaration by the court that the punitive criminal defamation act is illegal, media freedom in Kenya is checked by both state and non-state actors. For instance, as of September, Kenyan media houses were owned a combined debt of Ksh 1.9 billion by the government. Out of the Ksh1.9 pending bill, Ksh 1.5 billion had been verified and confirmed by Government Advertising Agency (GAA), a body that was clandestinely formed under the Ministry of Information and Communication to control government funds going into the media through advertising. GAA, which was formed by Jubilee administration seven years ago, was meant to make media owners ‘toe the line’.

Press freedom remains a major challenge across East Africa. PHOTO/AKU

In addition to this, media in Kenya is largely controlled by politicians and private sector through ownership, with main agenda being protection of political and commercial interests. The public broadcaster — Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, which is expected, importantly, to play a neutral role in dissemination of information — is reeling under heavy weight of debts and obsolete technology. These, according to Reporters Without Borders, weaken the media financial muscles and leave them at the mercy of politician and corporates who have no respect for a free media.

Editorial independence

Attempts to revamp Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to make a public broadcaster as envisaged by the constitution has not been successful due to lack of political support. KBC still works in the best interest of the ruling class and lack editorial independence to serve for the common good of the society. Furthermore, the cooperation has weak financial base, finding itself in competition with private sector whose main interest is commercial.

 Uganda has pronounced itself in protecting press freedom, but this is fashioned to fulfill international obligations. For instance, Uganda Communication Authority has kicked a storm with the latest attempt to review broadcast regulations, all meant to control broadcast content online. According to the new regulations, any news content to be distributed using social media or any online channels, must be registered and sanctioned by the state. According to lobbies and lawyers, who have since moved to court to challenge the regulation, the state is hell-bent on controlling distribution of news, to serve political interests of the regime.

President Museveni has not hidden his desire to have a weak media as police officers have physically attacked journalists in different parts of the country. Even though Uganda has embraced a pluralistic media, licensing tens of independent media, editorial independence remains a mystery as the government uses a number of tricks to crackdown on editorial content. In August 2018, NTV Uganda journalists were assaulted and arrested by police during a live broadcast of unrest in Arua district where opposition supporters engaged police in running battles. While this attracted international condemnation, no action was taken, leading to conclusion that the attack was sanctioned by the state to hide information. 

Tanzania hurdles

Tanzania, which until John Pombe Magufuli took over reins of leadership five years ago, had the strongest media regulator in the region — Media Council of Tanzania — the Fourth Estate has found itself fighting hurdles erected by the government.

In addition to tough media laws and policies that have seen media houses either fined or ordered to shut down, President Magufuli’s administration is unable to explain disappearance of Azory Gwanda more than a year later. Attempts to explain what could have happened to him was marred by contradiction from the government.

Ruling with iron fist, President Maguli’s administration detained Erick Kabendera for seven months in prison on what civil society and international media lobbies called trumped-up charges. Amnesty International, a US-based Non-Government Organisation, argued that arrest and detention of Mr Kabendera was an assault on press freedom. Trial of Mr Kabendera on charges of money laundering and tax evasion were deferred several times. Immediately he was arrested, the government said Mr Kabendera was to be questioned about his citizenship, but this changed after the government could not lay hands on evidence that could nail him. 

To further gag the media, Tanzanian government had also issued guidelines, ahead of its general elections, held last year, prohibiting local media from airing content produced by international media. This came a week after Tundu Lissu, who was opposing Magufuli in the elections, was hosted by a Kenyan media — Radio Citizen — during which he launched an attack on President John Magufuli’s autocratic leadership. 

Rwandan scenario

Even though Rwanda has improved in enhancing conducive working environment, self-censorship is still a challenge to avoid stepping into President Paul Kagame’s big toes. Journalists in Kigali still watch their back while in line of duty, even though Rwanda has made commitments to fulfilling its obligation as stipulated in African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on freedom of expression.

Rwandan journalists journey to a free media continued last year with the repeal of criminal defamation that was a major hindrance of press freedom. However, the law still protects the presidency, recommending up to seven years in jail for any derogatory remarks against the head of state. Journalists and pundits still find penal code, especially law on genocide denial as a sharp sword that can always be swung against journalists whenever the country’s leadership is rattled. Rwanda, pundits and the government say, is fragile due the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, that some freedoms must be exercised with caution.  

It is for this reason that the country has a restrictive licensing regime for independent media that has seen the country largely served by state media. In addition, the country also put in place strict requirement for registration of journalists by Rwanda Media Commission. For a journalist to get the requisite accreditation to work in the country, there are requirements to be cleared by different state agencies in addition to professional qualifications.

Poor score in Burundi

Burundi, which has scored poorly in the press freedom index, if not last in the log, has nothing to write home about if the number of independent journalists who are in forced exile is anything to go by. Under President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in June 2020, journalists working for independent media houses and Burundi Journalists Union leadership were forced to flee the country in 2015. Journalists were considered enemies of the state due to their stand alongside civil society on extension of President Nkurunziza’s rule.

In the crackdown to control government narrative through public broadcaster, independent radio stations and newspapers were shut, leaving the country with one independent newspaper to operate. The country in January this year, sentenced four journalists at the only remaining independent newspaper to a 30-month jail term. The four — Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Térence Mpozenzi and Egide Harerimana — worked for Iwaci weekly newspaper. Their colleagues who fled the country have been forced to pitch tent in Kigali, where with the help of international community, mainly the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) informing the world on the happenings in Burundi.

In conclusion, freedom of the media in Eastern Africa is still a mirage as all countries have tens of laws under their penal codes that are normally brandished on need-to-need basis in an onslaught against journalists. To protect media freedom in the region, there is a need for collaboration between academia, state and non-state actors to carry out legislative, administrative and policy reforms in the media sector.

About the Author

Author ProfileErick Oduor
A veteran journalist, Erick Oduor is the Secretary General, Kenya Union of Journalists

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