Press Freedom: Mixed bag for African media

Recent political developments and regime changes across African have brought changes to the the status of press freedom on the continent - with mixed results. This according to the recently-released 2019 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. While some media reforms have materialised following political developments in certain countries listed, others have seen media freedom suffering as political instability grows.

Image: @RSF_en

The best?

Norway, Finland and Sweden are the top ranked countries for media freedom - three of the 15 countries globally have a media that operates in an enabling environment, under conditions which the RSF Index refer to a ‘good situation’. Apart from Jamaica and Costa Rica in the Caribbean and New Zealand in the Pacific, all 12 of these countries are Western European and Scandinavian. While Africa has seen certain countries climb on the RSF Index, no country on the continent has a media that operates in this ‘good situation’.

Namibia has reclaimed its spot as the country in Africa with the highest ranking, a position it held in 2017 as well. While number one in Africa, the sub-Saharan country ranks at 23 globally. Following Namibia, South Africa, Cape Verde and Ghana are also described as having a media that operates under ‘satisfactory conditions’, although South Africa has dropped three places from its 2018 ranking. Ghana, which held the top spot in Africa in 2018, saw its ranking severely compromised by the harassment, threats and eventual murder of Ahmed Hussein, an undercover investigative journalist from Tiger Eye PI.

Comparison by region for the past 5 years

Source: Reporters Without Borders

While the RSF Index shows Africa as registering the lowest deterioration in media freedom standards when compared to other regions, press freedom on the continent is still on the decline. The continent has seen a drop of 0.14 points in global rankings from 37 in 2018 and is now scored at 37.14 - the higher the number, the worse the situation for journalists. While there have been successes for the continent’s media, it seems Africa has yet to recover from a decline which started in 2013 when the continent was at 34 points.

Top climbers in sub-Saharan Africa

Gambia’s move from number 122 to number 92 on the global ranking is a definite success for sub-Saharan Africa, climbing an impressive 30 spots. Gambia’s climb seems to have been heavily influenced by reforms after a regime change that saw the country out from the 23-year long rule of the Yahya Jammeh dictatorship. Since this development, at least 30 journalists who had fled the country have returned.

Ethiopia moved up 40 places, climbing from 150 to 110 globally in 2018. This significant shift in ranking can be attributed to the end of the war with its neighbouring Eritrea. Reforms by the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali have led to the release of all media practitioners previously held in detention - a move that has not been seen in Ethiopia in the last decade.

A change of government in Angola has also seen press freedom improve moderately, with the country moving up 12 places and ranking in the position of 109.

Problem areas in sub-Saharan Africa

Despite the RSF reporting incredible progress in some countries, the state of press freedom in many other African countries has declined. According to the RSF, despite Ethiopia’s gains, neighbouring Eritrea still holds the spot as the worst country in Africa to be a journalist - with only North Korea and Turkmenistan holding lower positions globally. This means that the improved relations between Eritrea and its neighbour have translated into very little progress and the crackdown against the media still continues unabated.

At least 11 journalists still languish in Eritrean prisons with no access to their families or to any legal aid. President Issayas Afeworki, who is among the Eritrean leaders the UN found guilty crimes against humanity, still exercises considerable control of the country’s media.

Another country facing continuing challenges in the face of media freedom is Zimbabwe, exacerbated by social media blackouts during bloody protests against fuel hikes early in 2019. Despite Emmerson Mnangagwa occupying office after long-standing dictator Robert Mugabe stepped down, violent attacks on journalists in the post-Mugabe era persist, and the situation for media practitioners remains fraught with challenges. Zimbabwe has slid down one spot since 2018 and is ranked at 127 internationally.

Despite ranking higher than Eritrea in terms of media freedom, Somalia is more dangerous - described by the RSF as Africa’s deadliest country for the media at 164 on the list. Mauritania’s precipitous decline continues, seeing a drop of 24 positions to number 94 on the list.

Tanzania’s position on the list has been influenced by challenges such as the disappearance of journalist Azory Gwanda, whose whereabouts remain unknown. Since 2018 the country has seen an accelerated deterioration, dropping down 24 places to 118, compared to it dropping ten positions in 2017 - a total drop of 34 places in just two years.

Overall status

Africa has seen a number of conflicts end, a number of dictators fall, and the rise of new regimes through free and fair elections - all which have had positive consequences for the media and press freedom, with the unbanning of certain publications and the release of a number of journalists from detention. The end of to hostilities between countries, dictators leaving office and changes of government through free and fair elections in others have led to the release of journalists from detention, the unbanning of online news platforms. Despite gains in the region, it’s clear from the RSF Index that the continent still has a long way to go in order to be seen as a favourable, enabling environment for media practitioners to operate.

To read the full report, click here.

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