The freedom of the press in an exceptionally important aspect of any democratic society. The ability to criticise government policy and allow the African people a voice in the most important matters of policy is the cornerstone of both the freedom of the press and democracy itself. Protecting the independence of the press is essential if democracy in Africa is to remain strong.
WHAT MAKES THE PRESS ‘FREE’?
At the most basic level, the press – that is newspapers, online news pages and other general media outlets – is free if it is independent of the government. Privately owned media outlets in their publications do not take orders from their government and can run whatever story they like. State-run media agencies often operate in order to serve the interests of the government, and so simply become another arm of government policy. Privately owned media outlets are not automatically free however. Efforts from governments to repress media outlets by banning discussion of certain topics, interfering in the running of media companies or simply by intimidating individual journalists also serve to weaken press freedom.
WHY IS PRESS FREEDOM IMPORTANT FOR DEMOCRACIES?
A free press is crucial for any democracy because it contributes to the transparency of government, a key feature of most democracies. The freer the press, the more democratic the society becomes. Private, instead of government ownership of media outlets allows the press to assume many different unique roles in society. A free press can serve as a kind of ‘watch-dog’, monitoring government activity, improving accountability and transparency. Particularly in the age of digital news, free media outlets can act as a forum – a place in which people from all backgrounds can discuss different prominent issues and ideas.
FREE PRESS UNDER THREAT
Whilst a free press clearly contributes to a more democratic society, there are many cases of sub-Saharan governments repressing the media outlets, and thereby limiting democracy. Government action has been the primary threat to press freedom across the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo for example, Joseph Kabila the president attacked foreign news outlets like Radio Okapi (funded by the United Nations) as well as attacking Congolese journalists like Marcel Lubala Kalala who was tragically killed while reporting from an opposition protest. Repression of media freedom does not take form simply by direct attack however.
In Tanzania the president John Magufuli used legislation to weaken the freedom of the press. The 2015 Cybercrimes Act or the Media Services Act directly undermined the ability of media outlets to criticise the government, in fear of being imprisoned for ‘insulting’ the president. In Chad and the Republic of Congo governments were accused of organising a complete communication blackout during times of civil strife and elections in order to restrict the reach of the press. It is clear that such African politicians see the democratic influence of a free press and are trying to repress it.
Supporting the freedom of the press is vitally important for all African nations. Without impartial media outlets, the government is far more likely to be able to act unconstitutionally without criticism. Extra-judicial practices, corruption and repression are far more likely to take place in countries where the press is subject to the control of the government. Crucially, a free press gives Africans themselves a voice in affairs of state – unfree media outlets simply do not care about the key issues of the African people.