Uganda fell behind, whereas Kenya improved its press freedom ranking in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 Press Freedom Index. And after years of media freedom decline, Tanzania appears to be on the right track. But overall, media freedom activists say there is still work to be done.
“First, let me say I am sorry for the harassment, suppression, imprisonments, and even deaths that journalists face. But the good news is that such incidents are decreasing,” Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan told reporters and media stakeholders as the world marked Press Freedom Day.
It was the first time in Tanzania’s history that the East African nation played host to a momentous day for journalists in Africa.
According to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2022 Press Freedom Index, Tanzania is ranked 123 out of 180 countries. In 2021, RSF ranked the East African nation at position 124. Though minimal, Tanzania has improved one rank.
Nonetheless, RSF states that being a journalist in Tanzania is a precarious calling. Reporters are underpaid, and the government – which provides the biggest chunk of revenue to media outlets through ads – “punishes those that stray from its line.”
President Samia reiterated that her administration had made considerable strides in opening up and improving media freedoms since mid-March 2021, when she took office following the death of President John Pombe Magufuli.
She also vowed to continue dialogue with all relevant partners to reform Tanzania’s media laws.
Tanzania: Press freedom improvement
“Since Samia Suluhu Hassan became president in March 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has noted several improvements in the press freedom climate. These include the February 2022 lifting of bans on four publications,” CPJ’s Sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo, told the EAST site in a written statement.
She said many [Tanzanian] journalists told CPJ they now feel safer doing their work. However, Ms Muthoki also noted:
“There continue to be reports of journalists arrested while doing their jobs, including as recently as February. Of great concern is that even under President Samia’s government, restrictive media laws continue to be used to the detriment of the press. Last year, CPJ documented the two-week suspension of Uhuru newspaper and the month-long suspension of Raia Mwema newspaper, both accused of breaching a 2016 law, the Media Services Act,” Muthoki said. She stressed that the specific law was deemed inimical to press freedom by the East African Court of Justice in 2019.
Nevertheless, President Samia’s attitude towards the press is the opposite of her predecessor, the late John Pombe Magufuli, who critics accused of cracking down on dissent and shutting down independent media.
Press Freedom Comes with Responsibilities, says Samia
“Tanzania respects the freedom of the media and that comes with responsibilities. The media is crucial to the development of society but must play within the laws established and must help the African governments achieve their objectives,” President Suluhu, the chief guest and keynote speaker during the event, said.
This year’s United was sponsored by the Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) with the Theme Journalism under digital siege.
While the rest of Africa converged in Tanzania for the event, Uruguay hosted the WPFD at a global level.
President Suluhu said supporting the African media is indeed a step towards the right direction with the ultimate goal of making Africa and African media tell its own story.
She said Tanzania will review unfriendly media laws to ensure that Tanzanian media enjoys its space but with a caveat that until that happens, the media must obey the laws in place.
Uganda’s deteriorating press freedom
Uganda was the worst-performing nation in East Africa as far as press freedom is concerned. It fell seven places to occupy position 125 out of 180 countries.
The Reporters with Borders report blamed President Yoweri Museveni for cultivating a climate of fear for journalists. In 2018, he referred to journalists as “parasites.”. “CPJ has also previously expressed concern that past anti-press rhetoric by high-level government officials, including President Yoweri Museveni, creates a hostile environment in which security personnel feel that they can attack journalists at will,” Muthoki said.
According to the RSF report, journalists in Uganda face threats and violence, and security agents regularly attack them. CPJ has also documented repeated physical attacks by police and military officers on the press, Muthoki said, adding: “Journalists are particularly vulnerable when covering members of the political opposition.”
The RSF report also accused Ugandan authorities of routinely intervening directly in the broadcast of some TV reports and, in some cases, calling for such reports to be dropped from programs.
In addition, in 2019, police raided three private radio stations to cut short interviews with an opposition politician.
Kenya makes steady progress
At position 69 out of 180, Kenya emerged as the best ranked East African country. In 2021, RSF placed East Africa’s arguably biggest economy in position 102 of the press freedom index.
“While Kenyan journalists operate in an environment of relative freedom, compared to some of their counterparts in the East Africa region, they still face certain difficulties that constrain their reporting,” CPJ’s Muthoki said.
“For instance, the 2018 Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act contains provisions that criminalize speech on overly broad grounds,” she said, pointing out that the law gives authorities the power to set themselves up as arbiters of what is “true” and “false” with dangerous implications for freedom of the press.
Before it became law, CPJ raised concern that the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act would be used to gag journalists and that segments of it seemed calculated to introduce criminal defamation, previously struck down by Kenyan courts. Ever since the law was passed, reports by digital rights groups and by the press show that bloggers and people posting content on social media are among those who have been targeted for arrest and prosecution under this law. Journalists have also been targeted directly by threats and physical abuse. For example, In April 2021, CPJ documented the police harassment of Citizen TV journalists after they published an expose on illegal trade in firearms.
“CPJ is concerned by recent reports that journalists reporting on election campaigns have been physically assaulted and calls on authorities to ensure a safe and free environment for the press ahead of the  August 9 polls.”
The RSF report further stated that politicians or people with close ties to the government own many media outlets.
The Kenyan authorities can influence the appointment of media managers and editors and those in charge of the media regulator, which is depicted as independent but is directly dependent on the government. As a result, self-censorship is encouraged by the government’s strong presence.
Moses Mutente contributed to this article
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