Media suppressed on the continent
The media commemorates Black Wednesday this month. It’s 39 years since the apartheid government summarily shut down two newspapers and arrested the editor and journalists. This anniversary is notably tragic at a time of turmoil at the SABC where Hlaudi Motsoeneng seeks to redefine the landscape of a profession that exists under constant threat on the continent.
While South Africans continue to try to dislodge Motsoeneng from Africa’s biggest broadcaster, elsewhere on the continent journalists are being eliminated or thrown in jail by state agents, hell bent on suborning media freedom while leaders seek to hold on to power at all costs.
In Burundi, journalist Jean Bigirimana left his home in the capital city Bujumbura on July 22 and vanished. Some reports say he was arrested and detained by agents of the National Intelligence Agency. Others say he was eliminated. Either way, he has not been seen since.
Burundi’s state of affairs today mirrors South Africa’s in 1977 when the apartheid government ran the country with an iron fist. On October 19 1977, the government shut down The World and The Weekend World, detained its editor, Percy Qoboza, and other journalists and banned 18 organisations involved in Black Consciousness activities.
Bigirimana’s disappearance is one of many describing the perilous state of journalism in Africa. Also in July, the editor of the Lesotho Times, Lloyd Mutungamiri, was shot and critically wounded by what is believed to have been state security agents when he arrived home from work in Maseru.
In Zimbabwe, the disappearance, detention and beating up of journalists covering demonstrations have become terrifyingly commonplace.
Eritrea and Ethiopia are the most censored countries in Africa. Conditions for journalists in Egypt have become increasingly hostile.
At the heart of all this suffering by journalists is a contest over freedom of expression in countries that do not tolerate criticism and exposure of the excesses of state power.
In a report published this month the Inter Press Service said: “The role of the media in providing credible information, of giving voice to the people and holding those in power to account is fundamental to the realisation of our freedom and human rights. While there are differences of opinion about whether the media are part of civil society, what is undisputed is the key role that they play in social and economic development, democracy, human rights and the pursuit of justice.”
In many African societies, the media finds itself torn between accusations of pushing an agenda for imperialist ideals and being lapdogs of those holding state power.
To be seen to be against state authority, real or imagined, may be a journalist’s undoing. Yet the media is fundamentally called upon to hold those in power to account.
When then South African Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger banned the publications in 1977, he said they were publishing material threatening national security.
Governments in Africa have always been uncomfortable with the broader participation of society on how they exercise state power.
By clamping down on the media, they have kept citizens away from national discourse, a space authorities need for corruption and dictatorships to flourish.
Freedom of expression remains a vexed question on the continent. How far the media can go in telling stories depends on what it seeks to achieve for the society it serves.
The media has also not done itself any favours in how it has approached news. Recently, SABC 1 screened an exclusive interview with King Mswati III following his appointment as chairman of the Southern African Development Community.
Swaziland’s denial of basic human rights was not raised in the 30-minute interview, which turned out to be a feel-good public relations exercise portraying Africa’s last absolute monarch as benevolent.
Mainly because of the media clampdown, many stories in Africa remain untold, and snippets of what is publicly available come through social media with little context.
The crisis in Burundi is arguably one of Africa’s most under-reported tragedies. Not much is known of the extent of political upheaval there. News filtering through social media raises suspicions that genocide may be playing itself out there. Many of Burundi’s journalists have fled. Others have disappeared.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute right, even in a democracy. When free speech is encroached upon to the point that it does not allow for a society to speak to itself, however, it can never find peace.
The SABC has never found balance in disseminating information in a complex society, despite the power it wields on the continent.
Mainstream media needs to earn its credibility, particularly today, when social media have taken over breaking news. We cannot continue to be caught in partisan issues and still expect respect as torchbearers of truth and justice. We cannot have our cake and eat it.
Bheki Makhubu is editor of The Nation in Swaziland.