African governments are cracking down on news media, and their populations might be okay with that.
On May 2, the Ugandan Communications Commission suspended more than 30 journalists from 13 broadcasters. Their crime? They had reported on the trial of pop star — and now member of Parliament and celebrated opposition figure — Bobi Wine. One of the litany of charges Bobi Wine faces is that he organized an illegal rally in July 2018, to protest a new “social media tax.” Many see the tax as an attempt to stifle dissent against President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
These attacks on Uganda’s news media are not isolated. Rather, they are part of a continentwide trend of increasing restrictions on press freedoms. Since 2015, Tanzania has criminalized publishing statistics without government approval and spreading information deemed as false, insulting, inflammatory or threatening to “national security and public safety.” As a result, radio stations have been shut down, newspapers banned and editors charged with “sedition.” Even bloggers must now be registered, and they are required to alert the government to their content before posting it. Kenya temporarily shut down three television stations in January 2018 for covering an opposition leader’s “inauguration.” A Ghanaian member of parliament exposed, on national television, the previously protected identity of investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale in January 2019 and called for violence against him; Suale was killed soon after. Twenty-two African countries have blocked the Internet or social media since 2015; a shutdown in Chad has lasted more than a year. Even Benin, one of the continent’s most democratic countries, according to organizations such as Freedom House, limited Internet access during last month’s legislative elections.
What do Africans think about restrictions on the press?
The latest survey by Afrobarometer, an independent African research network, finds that Africans’ support for media freedoms has declined sharply over the past decade. The survey, which was conducted between 2016 and 2018 with more than 45,000 people in 34 countries, asked respondents whether they support the media’s “right to publish any views and ideas without government control” — or whether they instead support the government’s “right to prevent the media from publishing things that it considers harmful to society.” In the 2011-2013 survey, 56 percent of people interviewed in 31 countries chose media freedoms, while only 39 percent chose government control. In the latest survey, support for media freedoms in those same countries had plummeted by 10 points, to 46 percent, while support for government control had increased by the same amount, to 49 percent.
Afrobarometer has been measuring these attitudes since 2008. This most recent survey was the first in which more Africans support government restrictions than media freedoms.
This decline is not limited to a handful of countries. Rather, the trend is nearly universal. Only one country — Sudan — saw a meaningful increase in support for media freedoms: 61 percent of Sudanese support a free press, 12 points more than in our last survey. Most countries saw sharp declines. Those were largest in Tunisia (down 21 points), Uganda (down 21), Cape Verde (down 27), and Tanzania, where support plummeted 33 points, as you can see in the figure below.
In fact, in 18 of the 34 countries surveyed, a majority now favors government’s right to halt publications. In Senegal, one of the most democratic countries on the continent, 79 percent say they favor such government restrictions on the media.
Why has support for media freedom dropped so significantly?
A generation ago, most countries had only one radio broadcaster, television network or newspaper; those state-owned outlets often put out government propaganda. In the early 1990s, restrictions loosened considerably. Some countries now have hundreds of private and community-run radio stations, dozens of newspapers and television stations, and countless websites and social media accounts that beam updates straight to phones.
But these changes have brought challenges. Many outlets are biased and propagate only narrow viewpoints. Hate speech against partisan, religious and ethnic groups is common and can have dangerous consequences. In Rwanda, the first private radio station after media liberalization was RTLM, which spread anti-Tutsi propaganda and helped organize that country’s 1994 genocide. Private radio encouraged ethnic hate around Kenya’s violent 2007 elections.
And misinformation, or “fake news,” proliferates, especially on social media. Nigerian elections have had myriad high-profile examples. In 2017, a gubernatorial election was shaken by false claims that the army was injecting students with monkey pox.
Unfortunately, when Africans think of “the media,” more and more often they think of the hatemongers and fake-news peddlers. In this light, giving governments greater powers to limit what is broadcast, printed, tweeted, or shared might seem sound.
Giving governments license to crack down?
Citizens’ apparent displeasure with the media probably isn’t the reason for the new restrictions. Certainly, many governments are protecting their own power and avoiding accountability. But the dissatisfaction means that government media suppression is often accepted. Many Africans are probably responding to politicians’ rhetoric that treats the news media as dangerous threats to “national interests.”
Africa is not alone in this drop. Trust in media has declined globally in recent years. Politicians in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Turkey the Philippines and the United States have ramped up rhetorical or legal attacks against journalists.
However, the ramifications might be especially profound in Africa, where democratic institutions are new and often fragile. A free press is essential for holding governments accountable and ensuring free and fair elections. Independent radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, websites, and social media platforms mean greater ideological and political pluralism, enabling citizens to hear different voices and new perspectives. Citizens who support government efforts to stifle media freedoms might be undermining their own democratic rights.
Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz is associate professor of political science at Michigan State University and editor of the Afrobarometer Working Papers series.