The strange case of democracy killing media freedom in Africa

Wednesday November 20 2019

If democracy can continue to expand and politicians get better with mobilisation, the public appetite for unfettered free media could diminish further. PHOTO | GETTY IMAGES | AFP


Long before the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census results were released at the beginning of this month, I was at a small event where, among others, the CEO of the Nairobi-based Institute of Economic Affairs, Kwame Owino, was in attendance.

There was a group of clever and curious people who wanted to glean new insights about Kenya and Africa in general, asking difficult questions of a group of us.


Kwame was asked one of those hot questions about Africa today — its exploding population. The economist took a contrary view, saying projections (including by the UN) that Kenya’s population was about 52 million were too way off the charts to be correct. His own reading, he said, was that it was closer to 47 million.

There set out several economic reasons that informed his bet but, for us lay people, it came down to a simple ‘Kenyans are just not breeding like rabbits’.

With 10.5 million children in primary school and another 5.1 million in secondary school — more than the population of Rwanda — the underlying modernising forces from where those developments came from, he said, meant that the population simply couldn’t be more than 50 million.


And when the numbers from the census came out, he was proved right. Kenya’s population had grown to 47.6 million.


Most rich and educated people, as we all know, don’t have too many children.

They need to make time to travel on holiday, play golf, go to gym and sauna, see movies, watch sports on TV and don’t need many children to be unpaid labour or as back-up in case some die.

Prosperity is, indeed, a powerful anaphrodisiac.

There are those delightful stories from India about the desperate and failed attempts to reduce the birth rate. India’s state of emergency between 1975 and 1977, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, included coercive sterilisation.

At first, the government offered bribes. Folks who agreed to get sterilised would get land, houses and money. Anywhere up to six million men, according to some accounts, received vasectomies but there was a massive backlash.


The government shifted its focus to women, withholding their welfare payments or ration card money or simply buying them off with food and cash. In the end, there was a revolt against that.

However, after some time, there was a noticeable decline in the birth rate among several groups in India. Moreover, the people weren’t in family planning programmes. Soon it emerged that it was partly because of the rapid spread of television.

Indians just didn’t want too many children getting in the way of their TV cricket and soaps and so started having fewer of them.

Anyway, with the mood set for heretical views, soon I was quizzed on the state of journalism in Africa. Whether those of us who are in the trade will be able to pay the utility bills much longer as the business shrinks, battered by digital vagaries and millennials and other beautiful people who don’t want to get their fingers dirtied by printing ink.

Additionally, even if we were to overcome all those forces, whether we would survive the dramatically dwindling space for media freedom in Africa and the world.


A short while back, Afrobarometer released a survey of 34 African countries. It reported that support for media freedom among the people, which was a majority view just three years back, was in the minority. The majority of ordinary Africans supported government media censorship.

We have brought some of the problems upon ourselves through bad journalism, yes, but the issue is deeper and complicated. Support for media freedom is dwindling in Africa because democracy has succeeded.

Things were, ironically, “easier” in the old one-party and military dictatorship, with the despot in State House and his clique against the rest of the country. But when democracy came, imperfect as it is, politicians went out campaigning among the people, bribing them with cigarettes and booze, building roads and second-rate bridges, bringing electricity and appealing to their tribal solidarity.

They succeeded. With so many people mobilised by political factions and tribal overlords, when the Press performs its duty of exposing their failures and corruption their supporters feel attacked too and hate it.


It could change. But for the foreseeable future, if democracy can continue to expand and politicians get better with mobilisation, the public appetite for unfettered free media could diminish further.

We will just have to fight harder for it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3