East Africa’s free press still under threat, global survey shows
By Mwangi Maina | May 3rd 2021
Today is World Press Freedom Day, and this year’s theme focuses on ‘Information as a public good’. This day remains a crucial one for media professionals and citizens who believe in a free press as the cornerstone of democracy.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) last week released the 2021 World Press Freedom Index evaluating the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories. The report has been published every year since 2002.
This year’s index shows that free journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, was completely or partly curtailed in 73 per cent of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation.
Countries ranked in the index are assigned a score calculated from data on abuses and violence against journalists during the period being evaluated, and from questionnaire answers completed by journalists, media lawyers, researchers and media specialists. The categories are classified from good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).
Norway is ranked first in the index for the fifth year running as the country with the freest press. Eritrea has been ranked the worst country when it comes to upholding press freedoms, while Namibia remains continental press freedom leader.
Despite Africa consistently ranking as the most violent continent for journalists to work in, most of the 2021 index’s biggest gains are in Africa.
Several African countries showed significant improvements in press freedom.
Notable is Burundi which was ranked the most improved country, jumped 13 spots to 147 after four independent journalists received a presidential pardon. Sierra Leone and Mali, have also seen significant improvements.
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East African Community (EAC)
The region has once again ranked poorly in the index. This year, Kenya is at position 102 out of 180 countries, Burundi is at position 147, rising from 160 in 2020 which makes it the global top performer in terms of improvement; Tanzania and Uganda stagnating at position 124, 125 respectively, South Sudan 139 and Rwanda 156.
The country rose from position 103 in 2020 to 102 this year though the press freedom situation in Kenya is nonetheless still classified as “problematic” but has long been viewed as the region’s best place to practice journalism.
On Wednesday 21 this month, the High Court in Siaya made what was seen by media players as a “historic ruling” by sentencing Joel Ogolla Luta to 35 years in prison after finding him guilty of the murder of former Star newspaper journalist Eric Oloo.
The journalist was killed in the house of former Unguja deputy OCS Sabina Kerubo in 2019 in unclear circumstances.
However, recent media attacks by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations against Citizen TV’s expose done by Purity Mwambia, makes the situation become worse while seeking the truth, especially for those journalists covering sensitive matters.
Other recent events of attacks on individual journalists include; Nine journalists in Embu being arrested last week as police continued to evict residents from a disputed piece of land at Makima in Embu county.
According to Reporters without Borders: “Kenya has seen a slow erosion of media freedom in recent years. The political situation and security concerns have been used since 2016 as grounds for restricting the freedom to inform.”
According to the index report, the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the use of force to prevent journalists from working, and in the Swahili-speaking nation, the late president John Pombe Magufuli called the virus a “western conspiracy”, suggesting that Tanzania had kept it at bay through “divine intervention”.
He imposed an information blackout on the pandemic before his death in March 2021. In early April, Tanzanian new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan ordered the reopening of media outlets that were closed or otherwise repressed under President John Magufuli, who died in March.
She said; “I am told you revoked licenses of some media outlets, including some digital TVs. Lift the ban but tell them to follow the law and government guidelines.”
In recent years, Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) had documented the use of media shutdowns, arrests, intimidation, judicial harassment, and restrictive regulations to muzzle the free press.
Journalists in Tanzania say they’re hopeful that Samia’s April remarks on press freedom will bring real reforms, and the opening of the civic space.
In a telephone interview with The Standard, Salome Kitomari, the chairperson of Media Institute of Southern Africa Tanzania chapter (MISA TAN) said they have high hopes since Samia Suluhu was sworn in as Tanzanian President.
The nation has maintained the same position since 2019. Acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence. Security services are the leading press freedom predators.
On February 17, 2021- Ugandan soldiers assaulted journalists, they used sticks and batons to beat at least 10 journalists covering opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known popularly as Bobi Wine, while he delivered a petition to a United Nations office in Kololo.
The military head in Uganda, General David Muhoozi apologised for the attacks and promised to pay the journalists’ medical bills. Six soldiers were later handed prison sentences of up to three months by a military court for taking part in the brutal beating of local journalists.
Though the nation has dropped with one position from 138 last year to 139 in 2021, no journalist has been killed for the third year in a row, but the press environment remains hostile.
According to Reporters without Borders, close surveillance and intimidation are part of the regime’s predatory methods. Security forces often go directly to printing presses to censor content.
South Sudan together with Somalia, Syria and Iraq were categorized under the worst four spots on the list, in that order, as war and political instability perpetuate the cycle of violence and lawlessness.
Reporters without Borders ranks the East African nation as the global top performer in terms of improvement, moving 13 spots above on the World Press Freedom Index report.
Burundi ranked position 147, rising from 160 in 2020. The report shows that the election of a new president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, in May 2020 raised journalists’ hopes after years of persecution since the 2015 coup attempt.
The attempted coup and political instability that followed resulted in more than 100 journalists fleeing the country and the closure of many media outlets.
“The release of four IWACU reporters in December 2020, Burundi’s leading independent media group, who had been jailed arbitrarily for more than a year, and the president’s request to the media regulator to ‘settle the differences’ with sanctioned media outlets were seen as encouraging signs,’’ the report said.
A Burundian-based journalist who spoke to The Standard on condition of anonymity notes that they’ve seen amnesty granted to journalists who were jailed, and more media houses are opening in the country. The source says, although there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel, they still have a long way to go in as far as press freedom is concerned.
BBC, VOA, and two local media houses, however, remain banned in Burundi.
The situation remains unchanged as the East African nation stagnates on press freedom. This year Rwanda has dropped from position 155 in 2020 to 156 in 2021. Although the country is stable, journalists know the red lines they are not allowed to cross as far as practicing journalism is concerned.
Pundits argue that the state has had a complex relationship with the press. The Rwandan government updated its penal code, officially decriminalizing defamation, a move that the Rwanda Journalists association hailed as a “very important step.”
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