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Southern Africa: Partly free press is simply not free enough

In May, Freedom House, a Washington-based non-profit organisation, released its report on global media freedom, in which South Africa’s place in the rankings dropped from “free” to “partly free”, mostly, it noted, due to the growing hostile rhetoric from top government officials, as well as official encroachment on the editorial independence of the SABC.

None of that comes as a surprise to local journalists, who are feeling the heat in every way — from government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi’s comments about plans for government’s print advertising budget to the reappearance of media tribunal talk and the pressure to squeeze the Protection of Information Bill through Parliament.

The study, which surveyed 196 countries and territories, found that in this age of digital information overload the number of people worldwide with access to free and independent media had declined to its lowest level in more than a decade. The Mail & Guardian‘s state-of-the-media round-up for the SADC found things weren’t so pretty. Well, that is if you like your reporting served up free.

Legislation supports freedom of expression and information in Angola. But, after emerging in 2002 from 30 years of civil war, the press was not ready for the transition to capitalist competition. That’s according to a 2009 report by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) on the health of the country’s media.

The country has a 58% illiteracy rate, which seems to keep newspapers from expanding outside of Luanda. The Journal de Angola, the daily state-owned newspaper, is the only publication available throughout the country. The Angola Press Agency is also government owned. This undermines any opposition voice, especially in rural areas, where government support is traditionally at its strongest.

But the greatest problem facing newspapers is the lack of capital, says Teixera Cândido, the deputy secretary general of the Angola Journalists’ Union. With government giving advertising to publications that are less likely to criticise it, those doing a professional job are struggling to survive, he says. As a result, private newspapers like Angolense and Agora are on tight budgets and are unable to fund investigative journalism.

The Freedom House survey noted that journalists are “driven to self-censorship by the threat of dismissal, detention, and prosecution”. More disturbing, though, was that it also noted that some journalists had been killed in attacks linked to the government. — Sipho McDermott

Freedom of speech in Botswana has been protected by its Constitution since independence in 1966. But according to Botswana Guardian editor Mpho Dibeela, recent regulation has criminalised much of what journalists do in their daily work.

“Through the Media Practitioners Act of 2008 the government has come to interfere with this freedom by creating a statutory body that has a minister appointing committees, which we see as interference,” he said. Dibeela was referring to a clause in the Act that allows the minister of communication, science and technology to create a media council to monitor journalists, administer accreditation and impose a regulatory system on the media. This is in spite of the country already having an active press council.

“This Act also takes away the discretion of editors to the right of reply by making it compulsory. Also, it provides that media workers, including columnists and people that regularly write letters to the editor, be registered. Those found guilty of any offence against this Act could be jailed.”

Dibeela said the government has, over the years, subtly and tactically dealt with critical sections of the press by withholding advertising. The country also doesn’t have an access to information Act, which means, Dibeela said, that it relies on whistle-blowers for information. But the new Public Service Act of 2008 criminalises the release of public information by government officials unless they are permitted to do so. A person found guilty faces jail time. — Aphiwe Deklerk

In the Democratic Republic of Congo journalists who criticise the government are subject to arrest, torture and even death. Journalists in Danger detailed 87 cases in 2010 of attacks on journalists.

In June last year the body of Floribert Chebeya, director of Les Voix des Sans Voix (Voices of the Voiceless) was found bound and gagged in the back of his car after he was allegedly called to a meeting with police chief John Numbi. Online news source Democracy Digest reported that in the weeks following the murder the United Nations, in an open letter to President Joseph Kabila requested an inquiry. In response, the Congolese authorities agreed to launch an investigation and in November last year eight officers were put on trial in connection with the murder. Numbi was suspended. The trial is expected to last several months.

Reporters Without Borders pointed to incidents such as the disappearance of journalist Tumba Lumembu, allegedly abducted by the national intelligence agency in September last year. Lumembu was eventually charged with repeatedly insulting the president and was finally released after four months in detention. After his abduction 31 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a press freedom group, sent an open letter to Kabila requesting a moratorium on imprisoning journalists on charges of defamation so that the media could play their role in the run-up to the 2011 presidential election. — Ayanda Sitole

There is no shortage of media in Lesotho. Most of South Africa’s newspapers and radio stations, as well as the SABC, are freely accessible in the country. There are also 24 media outlets. The government owns one television station, two newspapers and a stake in two radio stations. But in spite of this exposure, the Freedom House survey rates Lesotho as a “partly free” country.

Because Lesotho does not have any self-regulatory media body, all complaints against the press go through the courts. According to one newspaper owner that’s what has put a muzzle on the media. In 2004 Afrol News, a website covering news in and around the continent, quoted The Mirror‘s Tebello Pitso-Hlohlongoane referring to an out-of-court settlement which had the paper paying out a former Cabinet minister, saying that people have developed the habit of taking newspapers to court.

In April 2008 Afrol News reported that private broadcasters were up in arms after the Lesotho Communications Authority slapped radio stations with a fee increase that drove their $400 (R2 684) annual payment up to a whopping $3 000 (R20 010). Private media outlets said this came on the back of economic difficulties caused by a pullback in government advertising since 2005. — Aphiwe Deklerk

The political crisis in Madagascar following the 2009 coup in which former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina took power had a destabilising effect on the country’s media. Legally though, the press is in a healthy position and has moved far from the late 1980s, when it went through long periods of censorship.

Legislation in place for the country’s press is exemplary, with freedom of expression and the protection of secret sources written into the Constitution. But its practical implementation is problematic. Journalists don’t know how to interpret some parts of the law and the judiciary has little understanding of the media, so it struggles to apply the law fairly, according to an Africa Media Barometer report in 2009.

The political crisis is forcing journalists to choose sides. Even if they don’t, they are often accused of doing so, said Rahaga Ramaholimihaso, owner of the independent daily, Madagascar Tribune. He said politicians are the main owners of ­independent media houses.

While the print media have not been physically targeted, the non-profit organisation, Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that in May 2010 soldiers smashed up a local radio station, destroyed its equipment and arrested the opposition leader, who was being interviewed on air. This is indicative of an environment in which journalists are not overtly threatened, but are worried they might be the result of which is often self-censorship. — Sipho McDermott

There are only two publications that create robust debate in Malawi, the rest are too small to influence many people, according to the Media Council of Malawi’s Penelope Kakhobwe.

To hinder greater societal debate the government has taken its advertising spending away from the more critical Nation newspaper and given it all to the Daily Times, to try to force the one to close and the other to be dependent and therefore compliant, said Kakhobwe.

There may be little legal meddling in the activity of the media, but physical attacks occur, with reports of militants from the ruling party’s youth wing beating up a photographer from the Nation last year.

The country’s first multiparty elections, in 1994, led to an explosion in newspapers, with 32 being registered. But with no culture of professional journalism there were few practitioners, according to a Media Institute of Southern Africa report on the health of SADC media in 2009. Poor reporting on politicians has added to tensions between the government and the press, the survey noted, with politicians winning lawsuits against newspapers and using these to threaten others.

A new law that would allow the minister of information to prohibit publications considered to be against the public interest is now being contested in court. — Sipho McDermott

Freedom House’s latest survey found that Mauritius has a “free” press, placing it 58th of 196 countries in the 2010 Global Press Freedom rankings and number three in sub-Saharan Africa (Mali came first, followed by Ghana).

But, according to Reporters Without Borders, a number of incidents during the 2008 election, including the arrest of journalists and police storming the premises of a local private radio station, caused the country to drop 21 places on the press freedom index.

The media in Mauritius are perceived as free and independent, but the press can be sued for defamation, libel and sedition. The media are generally perceived as offering balanced, relatively impartial and independent coverage during elections and political parties are given adequate coverage.

Before 2001 broadcasting was dominated by the state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation, which was criticised for its lack of impartiality. Since then, a number of private radio stations have emerged.

Still, Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the government’s discriminatory behaviour towards La Sentinelle, the country’s leading media group. In one of the latest incidents, in May 2010, the group’s journalists were excluded from a news conference by the finance minister. — Mail & Guardian reporter

Mozambique’s Constitution ensures the right to freedom of expression and press freedom, as well as the right to information, with the media regulated by an independent body.
Freedom House assigned the country a “partly free” status because of its level of media freedom. Defamation of the president is illegal and libel laws are sometimes used to prosecute media outlets. There have been occasional reports that police, local officials and political activists have harassed journalists and reporters have admitted that self-censorship is common.

In spite of a low level of penetration, print media are perceived to be a crucial communication tool in the election process in the country. All print publications are compelled by law to include material related to electoral activities during the campaign period. A recent report by the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa said opposition parties had accused the media of bias. — Mail & Guardian reporter

In the 2010 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index rankings Namibia held the top position for an African country, moving from 35 to 21 on the list.

But in 2011 the Freedom House survey found the country’s media freedom had shifted from being “free” to being “partly free”, noting biased coverage that favoured the ruling party during the 2010 November general elections and increased threats and harassment aimed at independent media.

A report by the Electoral Institute for Sustainability of Democracy in Africa named the current leading players in independent media as Allgemeine Zeitung, the readers of which comprise the small number of German-speaking Namibians, and the Namibian, which had been at the forefront of reporting on human rights violations by the colonial authorities.

But in 2009 Swapo secretary general and Justice Minister Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, speaking at a Swapo rally, described the Namibian‘s editor, Gwen Lister, as “a white person that writes bad things”.

A report by international nongovernmental organisation The Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Prime Minister Hage Geingob accused Lister of “unpatriotic reporting” for criticising his positive portrayal of Namibia at a symposium in the United States.

But the Media Institute of Southern Africa said the biggest blow to media freedom was the Nambian Communications Act. Introduced in 2009 the Act is often called the “Spy Bill” because of a section that deals with intercepting private citizens’ emails, text messaging services and internet banking. — Sibongile Nkosi

Freedom House rated the Seychelles as “partly free”, reporting that the presidential elections in the country were viewed as having met basic international standards. But the ruling party’s control over state resources and most of the island nation’s media gave its candidates a significant advantage at the polls.

In 2006 the newspaper, Regar, was sued for libel by the government and was fined, forcing temporary suspension of the publication. The paper’s editor, Roger Mancienne, told Reporters without Borders that the decision was prompted by the lawsuit, which ordered the publication to pay a fine of €52 000 in damages to Seychelles tourism board president Maurice Lousteau-Lalanne for publishing a photograph of him illegally fishing in an area protected by THE United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

But in December 2010 things started looking up. The Seychelles National Assembly passed a Bill creating an independent media commission to act as an arbiter of press-related disputes and investigate complaints from ordinary citizens and journalists. — Ayanda Sitole

The Swazi media are tightly controlled by the state. The government owns one of the country’s two daily newspapers, the Swaziland Observer, and the Saturday paper, the Weekend Observer, as well as the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Station and the Swaziland Television Broadcasting Corporation, which eschews political content and focuses on entertainment.

According to a national review of the state of media freedom by lawyer and human rights activist Nomcebo Dlamini, there is a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation, threats, interference in editorial content and the fear of advertising withdrawal by the state and big business. But internet access is improving in urban areas and has become a source of information outside of state control.

Still, Dlamini says journalists often work in fear of reprisal, which results in self-censorship. An incident in August 2010 that involved the former minister of justice and constitutional affairs, Ndumiso Mamba, and one of the king’s wives, was ignored by the local media. It was broken by South Africa’s Sunday Independent, with the local Swazi media reporting selectively after the initial furore had died down.

In April 2010 security forces detained and then released foreign journalists — including a Mail & Guardian reporter and photographer who were covering mass demonstrations by protesters demanding political and economic reform. — Mail & Guardian reporter

Freedom House declared that the media in Tanzania is only “partly free”, in spite of the guarantee of free speech in the Constitution. The country has a slew of Acts that keep a tight rein on press freedom, including the National Security Act of 1970, which makes it unlawful to publish classified government material, and the Civil Service Act of 1989, which prevents public servants from disclosing information without the express consent of department heads. Meanwhile, the Newspaper Act of 1976 allows government to prohibit publications deemed not in the nation’s best interest.

In 2008 the Tanzanian government suspended the Mwanahalisi newspaper for running stories with the intention of “inciting public hatred” against the president and for contributing to misunderstanding within the president’s family.

In a 2009 report the Media Institute of Southern Africa described the media in Tanzania as being in a state of chaos, acknowledging that while there has been an increase in media outlets journalism standards have fallen dramatically. The report also noted that “most of the media outlets are owned by senior politicians — and some of them have turned their outlets into weapons to fight a business and political war”.

The London-based Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research found in its report on the country that journalists and correspondents hunt for stories when sources are willing to pay. — Sibongile Nkosi

Zambia has no act guaranteeing access to information, but freedom of speech is enshrined in its Constitution. Still, in January this year, two journalists were detained in connection with protests in the country.

Following the incident the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zambia (Misa-Zambia) released a statement raising concern about police “picking up and detaining journalists on flimsy grounds” and questioning why the journalists were detained.

In August 2009 South Africa’s Independent Online reported that journalists marched to President Rupiah Banda’s office to protest against their continued intimidation after three reporters accused members of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy of beating them when they tried to cover Banda’s arrival at Lusaka’s international airport.

Two months later the International Freedom of Expression Exchange reported a similar incident, quoting a statement by Misa-Zambia that raised concerns about the intimidation of journalists, after recorders from various media houses were confiscated during a conference organised by the Press Freedom Committee of the Post newspaper.

The Post reported in April that the government had abandoned its attempt to further regulate the media after it conceded that the press was already in talks to create a self-regulatory body.

But the fight for an entirely free press is far from over. Media practitioners have been fighting for a freedom of information Act, but to date this has not been passed. — Aphiwe Deklerk

Zimbabwe was one of the few countries that Freedom House listed as a bright spot in media freedom rankings. While leaving its ranking as “not free” it believed that the formation of the national unity government in 2009 had created an environment of greater openness. Zimbabwean journalists might be hard-pressed to agree.

Many have been arrested and detained on the back of laws that were implemented to limit media freedom, including regulations such as the Interceptions Communications Act, which allows the interception and monitoring of phone calls and emails, and the Public Order and Security Act, which makes reporting on national security or anything that is “likely to cause alarm or despondency” a criminal offence that carries a prison sentence of up to seven years.

In 2003 Andrew Meldrum was expelled from Zimbabwe after serving as a correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer for 23 years.

He was accused of publishing false information about the government and was seized by security agents and driven to Harare airport. At the time, Meldrum was the only foreign reporter left, after the government banned all foreign journalists from reporting from the country.

But the national unity government did have an effect on media freedom. Laws became slightly more lenient and foreign journalists were allowed back into the country.

The Zimbabwe Media Commission, which was set up in 2001 but has been in effect only since June 2010, replaced the Media Information Commission, the purpose of which was to be a media watchdog as well as to issue licences to media houses and journalists to work in the country.

As a result of this development formerly banned newspapers, such as the Daily News, taken off the shelves in 2003, have returned. It has also allowed for the publication of privately owned newspapers such as NewsDay (owned by the M&G‘s Trevor Ncube) and the Mail. — Ayanda Sitole

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