Blaming the Messenger: African Media in the Dock

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August 11, 2010 By Jimmy Kainja

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If democracy was all about voting, Africa would have been the most democratic continent. Alas! Voting is just a part of democratic process. Democracy needs institutions that ensures transparency, accountability and to foster people’s democratic rights. This is where Africa falls short.

It is important to remember that democracy is relatively new to Africa. Most countries only turned democratic in the 1990s therefore the continent must be given time to establish its democratic institutions. It is the same with mammals. A baby craws before it can stand; it stands before it can walk.

However, nearly 2 decades since majority of Africa countries turned democratic, one would think that at least media freedom must be tolerated by now. Democracy cannot prevail without without free media.

Francis Nyamnjoh, an anthropology professor at University of Cape Town, once observed that the liberalisation of the media laws and freedom of expression that many African countries adopted in the 1990s have mainly been theoretical. African media are not practically free.

“… a closer look at most legal frameworks in African countries reveals a craving to controlling the media, this leaves little doubt lawmakers perceive journalists as potential troublemakers who must be policed.”

Nyamnjoh is spot on. African media are perhaps the major casualties of African democracy. Rwanda’s pre-election treatment of the media offers the best example of this. According to Amnesty International, the Rwandan government have closed newspapers, broadcasting stations and at least one journalist has been killed in the last two months. Yet Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame is supposed to be “the most media friendly” leader on the continent? This speaks volumes of the media in Africa.

Sadly, Rwanda is not the only country. In South Africa journalists are currently fighting against government’s proposed new media law that would “threatened free expression that was the “lifeblood” of the country’s democracy since the end of apartheid era rule in 1994.” Among other things, the proposed law includes “a new media law and a special tribunal for journalists.”

Elsewhere, the Burundi government recently arrested a journalist for publishing an article, which doubted the capability of the country’s security to dealing with potential terrorist attack(s). The journalist was writing in the immediate aftermanth of the Uganda’s July 11 twin bombings in which the perpetrators (Somalia’s Al-Shabab) signaled that Burundi may be a potential target, as it provides ‘peace keeping’ forces in Somalia.

Tanzania former President, Benjamin William Mkapa, once said that he does not speak to local journalists because they were ‘incapable of handling their job.’ This not only sound odd, as Mkapa is a former journalist, it also shows the altitude of African leaders. They are always happy to speak to western media but not their own. On his sick bed, the former Nigerian President, the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, avoided speaking to his own people through Nigerian media to dispel romours of his death. He opted to speak to the BBC instead.

One wonders what was ‘incapable’ about the Burundi journalist’s article. Was he not only trying to address a genuine issue of national concern and people’s safety? Yet his price for that is imprisonment? Would this journalist be treated the same if he was a foreigner from a bigger media institution? African governments must not make media a scapegoat for their own failures. Critical media is a catalyst for good governance and development; a true democrat cannot stifle the media; a true democrat takes criticism.

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