From covering the conflict in Sudan to reporting on elections in Nigeria and exposing corruption in South Africa, journalists and their work are constantly under attack and scrutiny. In light of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, it’s time to take a closer look at what African governments should do to protect their journalists and uphold media rights and freedom of expression.

Research into African media by several outlets including Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the International Press Institute (IPI) shows that journalists in the region are often subjected to online and offline harassment, violence and and in some very serious instances, jailed. A total of 61 press freedom violations were recorded across 11 countries in Africa, data from IPI for February 2023 shows, with state actors often involved in these cases. 

These attacks undermine the integrity of the media, press freedom and the country’s governance as a whole. 

Director of the Namibian Media Trust, Zoe Titus said in the MISA State of the Media in Southern Africa 2022 Report that “the persistent erosion of media freedom is one of the most pressing challenges confronting southern Africa”. 

While all  constitutions  in  Southern Africa  provide for freedom of expression and some specifically reference freedom of the press, it’s not practiced safely in all countries. For instance, South Africa has been ranked 25 and Namibia has been ranked 22 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom according to Reporters Without Borders 2023 Media Freedom Index.

On the other hand, media freedom in Nigeria is ranked at 123 and journalists in the region suffered the most press freedom violations in 2023, according to IPI. Africa’s last standing monarch, eSwatini ranks low at 111, and its government often prevents journalists from working freely and independently. It has had several reported cases of violations against journalists. 

In February last year, Nomthandazo Maseko, a pro-democracy journalist in eSwatini was physically assaulted by 20 prison police before she was dumped in a veld with bruises  all over her body, local media reported. Maseko was unable to get medical assistance then because doctors claimed they needed a police report first.

It’s been over a year since the incident, and Maseko has still not been able to get any justice. frayintermedia reached out to Maseko and she said she still feels pain from the scars where she was assaulted and added that she wants to open a legal case but is in fear of her life because the government is unpredictable. 

“I have firm conviction that the justice system in Swaziland does not protect journalists, I feel like the judiciary system and law enforcing agency have an agenda to silence all independent journalists and descendants,” she said. 

Maseko is just one of many African journalists working in unpredictable and hostile conditions, where they are censored and unprotected. 

According to RWB’s analysis, Africa is still a high risk continent for journalists. Conflict and censorship in some regions also enable disinformation, further arming the government to use the media as a propaganda tool. 

As the analysis states: “Propaganda and disinformation thrive in what is still one of the most dangerous terrains for journalists.”

What can governments do to ensure journalist safety

In a word: a lot. 

When the media is threatened, democracy is undermined and governance fails. The MISA report proposes what governments can and should do to strengthen media freedom in their countries.

  1. Enact and uphold legislation that guarantees press freedom: African governments should establish laws that protect journalists’ rights to report freely and without fear of persecution or censorship. These laws should be in line with international standards, such as the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.
  1. Ensure the safety and security of journalists: Governments should investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate violence or harassment against journalists to ensure their safety and security. Journalists must be able to carry out their work without fear of intimidation or physical harm.
  2. Promote transparency and accountability: African governments should foster a culture of transparency and accountability by providing access to information and promoting open governance. This includes allowing journalists to freely investigate and report on issues of public interest without facing legal repercussions or undue restrictions.
  1. Create a conducive environment for independent media: Governments should create an enabling environment for independent media to thrive. This involves removing barriers to entry for media organisations, reducing bureaucratic red tape, and promoting diversity in media ownership. Financial support and incentives for media development can also play a crucial role in sustaining independent journalism.
  1. Foster media literacy and digital media skills: Governments should invest in media literacy programs to educate the public about the importance of a free press and the role of journalism in society. Additionally, providing training and resources for journalists to adapt to the digital age will help them navigate new challenges and opportunities in the evolving media landscape.

Sustaining media freedom and protecting the press can strengthen governance in a country. It also ensures that the media sector can effectively uphold democracy, transparency and accountability.

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