Why are (most) African Leaders Silent on Media Freedom?

The people would be forgiven for thinking that most African leaders are not committed to building liberal democratic institutions as many of them consistently fail to defend the right to freedom of expression within their borders.

A recent media freedom conference held in London organised by the government of the United Kingdom and Canada, is a case in point.

At least 25 foreign ministers from around the world along with their representatives signed an agreement committing to protect journalists and their work. However, African leaders were conspicuous in their silence. Only one country, the Island of the Seychelles issued a statement announcing that their Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs, Barry Faure, signed the pledge to protect media freedom on the sidelines of the global conference. 

While a free-press is under attack globally, in many African countries, media freedom has either stagnated or continued to deteriorate over the years.  According to annual surveys by Reporters Without Borders,  African countries consistently score low on the freedom of expression index with only a handful of the 54 countries demonstrating satisfactory levels of media freedom. The rest vacillate from troublesome to seriously problematic.

A lack of a free-press has made it increasingly difficult for national journalists to provide insightful or meaningful reports on policy decisions taken by their governments without fearing for their lives or livelihoods – making a mockery of citizen participation and or civic engagement in governance.

Globally the mainstream media industry is facing unprecedented levels of economic contrition which have led to an increasing number of job losses in the sector as social media giants such as Facebook take up a huge chunk of advertising revenue, human resources including roles which traditional media outlets used to serve.

The economic down-turn means that media conglomerates who were previously able to spend millions of dollars sending correspondents on African assignments will decrease – resulting in minimal coverage of important political and socio-economic issues facing the continent which are either not on their countries’ foreign policy agendas or of no interest to their audiences.  As a result national African media outlets will be forced to sustain their business models by pursuing the seemingly benign low hanging fruit of tabloid journalism focused primarily on prominent individuals in the entertainment industry and sports or provide uncritical, sympathetic coverage of those in power.

The recent signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement is another case in point, where there has been little in-depth coverage from African countries whose livelihoods will be directly affected by the treaty. 

Unlike the plethora of news, features and analyses which preceded the proclamation of the Eurozone in 1999, which dominated even the African media space, African countries seem to be only pre-occupied with their own internal political power-struggles instead of empowering their citizens with information which could push the development of the continent further and faster, or interrogate what the African Continental Free Trade Area actually means for people and business on the continent. 

National or publicly owned media outlets who are best placed to interrogate such policies hamstrung by a lack of resources or adequate personnel, fail to provide insightful analyses on the treaty’s terms and conditions or how the AfCFTA will affect or compliment pre-existing bilateral, regional and international trade agreements.

A lack of adequate information and understanding of policy issues between African citizens means that a situation similar to Brexit may become a regular occurrence in the future and this will most certainly further entrench right-wing populist agendas adding fuel to pre-existing intra-national conflicts and Xenophobia.

What’s more concerning is the fact that a lack of media freedom on the continent has led to an increase in grant-funded journalism from well meaning philanthropic organisations and or governments who may only seek to fund journalism projects which fulfil their niche program specifications at best or have hidden nefarious motives at worst; as illustrated in a 2018 Foreign Policy story written by Azad Essa, “China Is Buying African Media Silence” whose weekly column in one of South Africa’s independent newspapers was cancelled hours after the paper refused to upload an opinion piece looking into the discrimination of Turkic-Muslims in China, on its online platform

Chinese state-linked companies hold a 20 percent stake in Independent Media, the second largest media company in South Africa.

 As an alternative, many African citizens have sought solace in social media, using Twitter especially, as a preferred mode of resistance, advocacy and activism.

However, even there, the right to freedom of expression functions mostly like a hit to an addict: it is something which provides temporary relief, but is not good for us in the long-run and is hard to give up.

Even as African countries desperately cling to the idea that its citizens should hungrily and immediately embrace the demands of a fourth industrial revolution on the one hand, they are doing everything possible to keep them in the dark on issues which are pertinent to the survival of future generations, on the other.

Most of them it seems, are unaware of the contradictions inherent in the buzz-words which they so freely brandish at podiums, slogans which have become as hallow as the word freedom.

In 2019, how will we meet the demands of the 4th Industrial Revolution without the freedom to express, debate and test our ideas and or public policies without censorship?

A lack of media freedom in Africa can only lead one to conclude that not only is the colonial project not over, it is being perpetuated by the very people we’ve trusted with our votes. Unless of course there’s another reason, which is even more horrifying to contemplate.

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