Importance of a free African press

A free press plays a critical role in promoting democracy in society and, in the COVID-19 crisis, plays a life-saving role by providing credible and accurate information to their audiences.

Namibia Trust director Zoe Titus said that the plague of misinformation and disinformation spreading parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the pressing need for credible journalism on the continent.

“This effectively is where the press provides the antidote, the antidote being verified, scientific fact-based news and analysis,” she said.

Titus led a fraycollege discussion on the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression on June 4 with Justine Limpitlaw, an electronic communications law consultant and a visiting adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s LINK Centre, Tholoana Ncheke the executive policy and regulation at the National Association of Broadcasters and a course convener at the LINK Centre and Pierre Minnie, LINK Centre’s honorary member in course management.

There have been concerns of African governments using the pretext of curbing COVID-19 to clamp down on media freedom. Titus said governments are taking advantage of emergency legislation in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic to “erode press freedom”, particularly in authoritarian states.

She added that a means to stifle press freedom on the continent included the introduction of anti-false news regulations during the pandemic which could be used to actually target media houses instead.

Some anti-false news regulations offer large consequences to those found guilty.

In Zimbabwe, those found guilty of “prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown” in Zimbabwe can be fined up “level fourteen or imprisonment for a period not exceeding twenty years or both,” according to the country’s regulation.

Limpitlaw highlighted that the updated Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa called on African states to repeal laws that criminalise the sedition, insult and publication of false news.

However, Limpitlaw said the spread of disinformation - the deliberate spread of false information to cause harm - had to be dealt with.

“I think as free speech activists we must be very careful that we don’t shy away from dealing with a very real democratic threat that disinformation poses - placed around not wanting to criminalise false news,” Limpitlaw said.

The late Jeanette Minnie was remembered as a free speech activist who never shied away from speaking out against press freedom injustice in Africa and who fought for media freedom in Southern Africa.

“It wasn’t just a theoretical exercise for Jeanette, it was a way of life,” said Pierre, her widower.

The Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression course honours Jeanette’s legacy and hopes to equip media activists to build upon her legacy.

The course kicks off on June 15 and aims to equip students with the fundamentals of ensuring a free, pluralistic, and independent African media.

The course is offered by WitsX and is overseen by the Link Centre. Ncheke said the Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression course is detailed and covers various aspects relating to media freedom including that of media regulation.

“What is really nice about the course is that each of the modules really focuses on a specific component in respect of media freedom. We look at what the principles of media freedom and freedom and expression entail, particularly because we know that these are the pillars of democracy and democratic societies,” Ncheke said.

Sign up for the Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression course here.

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