Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the worst regions for freedom of the press, according to the latest report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Press freedom in 22 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries is classified as either 'bad' or 'very bad'.
Hatred towards journalists, attacks on investigative reporters, censorship, economic and judicial harassment are some of the major ills that undermined independent reporting and quality journalism in the continent according to the advocacy group’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Somalia retained its position as Africa’s deadliest country for the media, as great deterioration in press freedom was recorded in Tanzania, Central Africa Republic, Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, the report shows.
In Somalia, three journalists were killed in 2018, two by Al-Shabaab militants and the other by a police officer.
A similar death toll was registered in the Central African Republic, which fell 33 places in the Index after the murder of three Russian reporters who had gone there to investigate the presence of Russian mercenaries.
Tanzania also made a drastic drop by 25 positions to be ranked 118. The change of president in 2015 is said to have been accompanied by unprecedented attacks on the press and the country continued its disturbing decline in 2018.
“President John “Bulldozer” Magufuli is in the process of joining the club of press freedom’s predators. Journalists are being attacked with complete impunity and the authorities have made no serious attempt to find Azory Gwanda, a journalist who went missing in November 2017,” read the report.
Two press freedom defenders who were investigating his disappearance were arrested in November 2018 and forced to leave the country.
The report says that freedom is often more restricted during electioneering periods.
The three methods traditionally used to harass and gag the media are violence, arrests and closures, for example, the passing of a law in in Tanzania requiring payment of Sh90,000 to register a blog or news website.
RSF registered the most press freedom violations in DR Congo in 2018. In the country, a filmmaker and his cameraman had to flee their homes to escape assailants after making a documentary about the eviction of villagers from land claimed by then President Joseph Kabila.
Mauritania, which also came down by a whopping 22 positions to be ranked the 94, continued its “precipitous” fall by failing to release Mr Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkaitir, a blogger who was arrested over an article condemning the use of religion to justify slavery, which is illegal but still practised in Mauritania.
His initial death sentence for apostasy in 2014 was commuted to two years in prison in November 2017. He should have been released a year and a half ago, but is being held incommunicado, ostensibly for safety reasons.
In March 2018, a foreign journalist was deported for trying to cover the same subject said to be off limits for journalists.
In Zimbabwe, the report says the security apparatus clings to its bad habits under Robert Mugabe’s successor, the now elected President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and RSF registered many, often violent, attacks on journalists.
As in 2017, the situation in 22 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries is classified as either “bad” (red on the map) or “very bad” (black).
Investigative journalists are the most persecuted.
“Investigative journalism continues to be very dangerous in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries far from the death throes of the civil war that threatens journalists in the CAR.
“Ghana, Africa’s best-ranked country in 2018, has lost this status for failing to protect a group of investigative journalists who were threatened, especially by a ruling party parliamentarian, after making a documentary about Ghanaian soccer corruption. One of its members was gunned down on an Accra street in January 2019,” said the RSF.
Other countries whose press freedom deteriorated are Liberia, Nigeria and Mozambique.
On the brighter side of things, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Angola were celebrated form great improvement in Press freedom, thanks to changes in leadership among other efforts to improve media operations.
Namibia, has been restored to its position as Africa’s best-ranked country trailed by Burkina Faso (36th) and Senegal (49th), which all have pluralist media and have little in common with the situation in Eritrea (178th) and Djibouti (173rd), which are information black holes where no independent media are permitted.
Ethiopia, which used to be near the bottom of the Index, has soared a spectacular 40 places following a change of government.
Between releasing journalists and bloggers, lifting the ban on several hundred websites and media outlets, and embarking on an overhaul of legislation that is extremely repressive for journalists, the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is said to have taken swift and promising steps to improve press freedom and, for the first time in more than ten years, no journalist was in prison at the end of 2018.
Gambia has jumped 30 places, confirming the promising evolution seen after dictator Yahya Jammeh’s departure. New media outlets have been created, journalists have returned from self-imposed exile and the criminalisation of defamation has been declared unconstitutional.
Angola, which also had a change of government in 2017, has seen more moderate progress.