/ 3 May 2011

So near yet so far: The quest for press freedom in Southern Africa

This year’s Word Press Freedom Day provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the progress, or lack of it, made towards attaining press freedom across the world on one hand, while on the other allowing us to look into the future of press freedom in light of past developments and current experiences.

This is particularly important for Southern Africa, a region where serious change in terms of press freedom only started in earnest at the beginning of the 1990s with the passing of the Windhoek Declaration for the promotion of free and pluralistic media.

Although many countries have since made constitutional provisions for press freedom and/or freedom of expression, this has often not translated into the existence of these rights in reality. In some countries, journalists continue to operate in environments that can be likened to a legal battlefield, complete with mines and booby traps in their paths. Many countries in the region continue to have on their statute books laws on official secrecy, defamation, insult to the person of the president and several others, which limit the rights of the media to freely access and disseminate information.

Apart from marking the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, this year’s Word Press Freedom Day also takes place against the backdrop of significant developments on the global media scene, which have direct implications for the future of press freedom in our region. The rise to prominence of WikiLeaks and social network forums, which are proving to be potent tools in the hands of citizens for purposes of mobilising and organising protests, heralds significant shifts in terms of power relations in our societies, with citizens increasingly reclaiming their power over individuals they vote into political office.

Since the passing of the Windhoek Declaration, significant strides have been made in Southern Africa in terms of the growing recognition of press freedom, as well as the development of plural media systems. For a region that had only known monopoly state media — both in print and electronic sectors inherited from the colonial era — the explosion of private newspapers and other periodicals, community and commercial radio (and, in some countries television) stations, and more recently cellphone and computer-mediated communications, has marked a clear break from the past.

These developments, however, have not been even across the region, despite the fact that all Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries are signatory to the Windhoek Declaration and other international protocols relating to press freedom and freedom of expression.

Reform, change, stasis and authoritarian backlash have been simultaneous processes characterising state responses to the Windhoek Declaration across the region — with some countries immediately instituting media reform and change, others choosing to maintain the status quo, and some that had embraced change starting to grow cold feet and experiencing reversals.

Malawi today, for instance, fits within the latter description, with clear indications of authoritarian backlash. Journalists and civil society leaders face persistent threats and harassment from President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly autocratic government. The recent amendment of section 46 of the Penal Code to empower the minister of information to ban publications he/she sees as not in the public interest is clearly a blank cheque that is open to abuse, and erodes a climate of press freedom that had prevailed since the end of the Banda regime. Academic freedom, too, is under threat in Malawi, where a professor was recently arrested for drawing examples from Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings in a lecture, leading to protests from fellow academics and the subsequent closure of the University of Malawi for about a month.

Thus the 2011 celebrations take place in a context where citizens in some countries in the region have nothing to celebrate. The continued media freedom violations in countries such as Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Angola are an indication that the struggle for press freedom and access to information is far from over.

Some of the crude forms of media freedom violations we continue to see in these countries are a clear indication that a lot still needs to be done before real press freedom can be realised. The killing of two journalists in Angola in 2010; the continued arrests, harassment and torture of journalists and threats to media houses in Zimbabwe; and the arrest and torture of journalists in Swaziland during the April 2011 demonstrations are typical examples of brutal media freedom repression in parts of the region.

The reluctance among most governments in the region to introduce access-to-information legislation is also a clear indication that the values of press freedom and democracy are not yet fully appreciated. Yet access to information is at the heart of democracy, good governance and transparency, and can also serve as propellant for development. A number of countries, including Malawi and Zambia, have had draft access-to-information Bills sitting on shelves for more than a decade.

The continued state dominance in the broadcasting sector in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Angola and to some extent Botswana means there is yet unfinished business in the fight for plural media as a precondition for freedom of expression.

Media appeals tribunal
Even in South Africa, where freedom of the press appears to have become an entrenched norm, its sustainability remains fragile and continues to demand spirited defence in the face of political interest in controlling the media through statute. The threat of introducing a statutory media appeals tribunal in 2010 by the ruling African National Congress, for instance, portends a serious danger to press freedom in South Africa. What is particularly worrying about this development is that the potential of such a tribunal being replicated across the region is huge, given the fact that South Africa has served as a role model for most countries in the region in terms of democratic media reform. Such a reversal in South Africa would quickly be embraced as justification for denying media self-regulation in other countries in the region.

In Zambia, for example, the government has already put forward arguments for state regulation citing the “findings” in South Africa about the ineffectiveness of self-regulation. Yet this clearly goes against Article 9 of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) Charter, which promotes media self-regulation as opposed to statutory regulation.

In Botswana, the 2008 media practitioners law was meant to stave off media self-regulation. It is a law that seeks registration of journalists and statutory control of the media, in complete contravention of Article 9 of the ACHPR Charter.

While a lot has been done to expose media freedom violations in Zimbabwe, owing to international media interest in unfolding events in that country, the challenge has been to draw similar global media attention to countries where Western media interest is marginal — such as Swaziland.

A combination of traditional and modern systems of governance in Swaziland has created serious challenges for journalists, making the exercise of their work extremely difficult. The increasingly intolerant Swazi monarchy has become highly allergic to criticism, and has put in place measures that include pre-publication censorship to ensure that critical stories about it do not see the light of day.

The Swazi culture of not criticising elders, for example, is frequently invoked to silence journalists and the media from exposing the excesses of the monarchy, and journalists who refuse to toe the line are summarily dismissed. Banning of publications that are critical of the monarchy or that give voice to proscribed opposition political groupings and civil society organisations is also not uncommon in Swaziland. A culture of impunity has also pervaded the ruling elite, as evidenced by the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in April this year, and the king’s travel to the United Kingdom for the royal wedding in total disregard of the crises at home.

Looking forward
This year’s Word Press Freedom Day has been appropriately themed “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers” — to capture both the promise brought by the new media and at the same time issue warning over challenges and pitfalls that these new frontiers of press freedom have to face.

The remarkable growth of new media in Africa, particularly the mobile phone, has generated a lot of excitement about the capacity to bridge the information divide between rural and urban, rich and poor, as well as the global North and South. The capacity for mobile internet has brought unprecedented growth in the numbers of users of social network forums. Their capacity to operate as tools for mass mobilisation has been tested in North Africa and the Middle East. Attempts have been made to use these platforms to coordinate demonstrations in Mozambique (over food prices in 2010); Angola; Swaziland and Zimbabwe (in attempt to carry out North African-style uprisings) — with varying degrees of success/failure.

The release of thousands of leaked diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks at the end of 2010 has also illustrated the potential of new media as critical tools for whistle-blowers, with great possibilities for aiding investigative reporting, particularly in closed societies.

What is important to learn from these developments are the ways in which these new media are contributing to the shifts in the locus of power from political elites back to the citizens.

Zambian President Rupiah Banda acknowledged this recently, at a SADC troika meeting to discuss Zimbabwe and Madagascar, by saying that, “If there is anything that we must learn from the upheavals going on in the northern part of our continent it is that the legitimate expectations of the citizens of our countries cannot be taken for granted … We must therefore continue at the SADC level to consolidate democracy through establishment of institutions that uphold the tenets of good governance for human rights and the rule of law.”

Thus if the African had in reality remained a subject even after independence, to borrow from Mahmud Mamdani, there is a fair chance that s/he will soon become a full citizen whose opinions and interests cannot be taken for granted by ruling authorities.

These new frontiers of press freedom and freedom of expression are, however, not totally immune from repression or capture as some would like us to believe.

As the recent Freedom House study on internet freedom across the world illustrates, repressive regimes, sometimes in collusion with profit-seeking big business, continue to seek ways of filtering and impeding information flows. Internet users, including bloggers and social network users, have already fallen victim to harassment and torture in a number of countries. As such, while we celebrate the gains made in terms of press freedom, and the promise brought by the new media, media freedom proponents should start putting in place strategies for jealously guarding these new frontiers of freedom of expression from capture by political and business elites.

Dr Dumisani Moyo is media and ICTs programme manager, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa