It was during the COVID-19 pandemic in November, 2020—a cold evening, at our graduation ceremony for the 3rd cohort of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nigeria 'Open Minds, Young Voices' Youth Activists Programme. Prizes in the form of published books were given out to the best performing participants in different categories. I didn't get one, but a colleague got one—it's the African Media Barometer (AMB) 2019 Nigeria Report published by fesmedia Africa. African Media Barometer? That was the first time I heard about it, I was so curious about what it entails. [Literally] Is it "an instrument for measuring atmospheric pressure" of the African media or a "gauge or indicator" for the African Media? I had to borrow it that evening to satisfy my curiosity.
And it turned out to be both—an instrument that identifies and analyses the shortcomings and best practices in the legal and practical media environment of different African countries according to 41 predetermined indicators. The African Media Barometer is an in-depth and comprehensive description system for national media environments on the African continent, based on home-grown criteria derived from African Protocols and Declarations like the “Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa” (2002) by the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). An instrument that can make newcomers in media freedom to be aware of the state of the media in their domain; to access information and easy-to-read analyses on media freedom; as well as why we should all be media freedom advocates. This, however, made me understand why various stakeholders, citizens, and other activists/advocates in non-media space tune off at media freedom advocacy.
Even though Africa has a vibrant civic space working either collectively or individually to actively advance the cause of media freedom—since they rely on the media to advance their various causes and meet the organizational objective. Unfortunately, most times when they try to create awareness to the people on the importance of media freedom, they bore us with complex and demanding academic language information so much that even though we should all be demanding it in these complex times, we tune off at media rights. Their passion for a subject they hold so dear keeps them from connecting with the people that need to hear about media freedom the most. So, on behalf of everyone who has added to your lack of interest in Media Freedom — a crucial indicator of democracy where journalists can report freely on matters of public interest — I apologize.
A healthy democracy has guiding principles like citizen rule, fair and free elections, the protection of individual rights, and cooperation. To ensure these principles become a reality, a free press is important. The ability of media houses, journalists, and active citizens to report freely on matters of public interest is a crucial indicator of democracy. A free press uncovers the truth, serves as a watchdog on power, informs citizens of their leaders’ successes or failures by analyzing information, encouraging discussion, and fact-checking. The media conveys the people’s needs and desires to the government, and provides a platform for the open exchange of information and ideas.
Unfortunately, this also means that those who seek control over our public and political participation – can easily focus their attention on restricting media freedom and keeping us disconnected from the information being conveyed by the press. According to Freedom House, "the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source. Elected leaders in many democracies, who should be media freedom’s staunchest defenders, have explicitly tried to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage." For example, Namibia’s stellar reputation as the beacon of media freedom in Africa is threatened by the intimidatory tactics the state has been using to discourage journalists from reporting on certain issues by deploying military paratroopers to control certain events.
The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, making it especially alarming. Hence, when media freedom is restricted, these vital functions break down, leading to poor decision-making and harmful outcomes for leaders and citizens alike.
This is why advocating for media freedom—our media rights—is important. Beyond protecting our rights for the sake of expressing ourselves freely, there are also social, economic and other costs to violations. In many cases, money is wasted on large-scale surveillance operations and other things by erring governments. As we have seen in many African countries, there are economic losses during clampdowns and lives are lost due to the deliberate targeting of media houses, journalists, or human rights defenders when they report or investigative issues.
As a result, at certain times, journalists and media organizations face violations of their media rights such as the right to privacy, freedom of expression, or freedom of association. The various AMB reports from countries have covered and reported these violations and concerns
From the citizens who would not have access to information because of the dead air caused by the closure of 79 radio stations by Guinea-Bissau's government nationwide in April, 2022 and the ban on all media houses from covering political activity by the Zamfara State government in Nigeria to the journalists whose laptops and phones would be confiscated by an inspector knocking on their door in Zambia because of what they write today.
From the relative that won’t come home tonight because of something he or she posted on social media like Aminu Adamu Muhammed, a 23–year old student, who was arrested on 8 November 2022 by security operatives suspected to be Nigerian Police operatives, over a tweet deemed to be demeaning to the person of the first lady of Nigeria, Aisha Buhari to the young woman whose innovation may never see the light of day because internet services were disrupted [as a way to repress the exercise of freedom of the press and freedom of expression] while trying to submit her entry; the list of possible implications is endless and no one is immune to the detrimental effects caused by the violation of the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of the press. This is why you should care about media freedom.
A major reason we are seeing more media rights violations across Africa is that as more people come online and express themselves, their opportunity for democratic participation through this new town hall clashes with the ego and self-serving interests of some political leaders who are increasingly learning about the power of online journalism and the internet. Journalists and activists being arrested in Africa for reporting issues or for their views online using the various national laws and policies being proffered which poses real threats to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on media freedom and Africans’ right to privacy has perhaps passed the stage of a trend in Africa, it is now an expected occurrence across the continent from Algeria through to Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Chad and Zambia;
The enacted controversial digital security law, Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021 in Zambia; the Digital Code passed in 2017 in Benin; laws such as the Act of 5 December 2019 on the repression of cybercrime in Mali; the Law on Cybercrime and the Media Communication Code in Madagascar; the 2020 reformed Penal Code Algeria; the 2016 Media Services Act in Tanzania; and the Code of Practice for Interactive Computer Service Platforms/Internet Intermediaries, Cybercrime Act, Anti-terrorism Act, and the Nigerian Press Council Act in Nigeria, etc.
This threatens democracy. It makes democracy extremely unhealthy. And a crucial antidote to unhealthy democracy is media freedom which rests on our ability to protect our rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and a free press. Fortunately, many of them are beginning to see that the violations they allow today will come back to haunt them when they lose power.
I have good and bad news. Let’s start with the bad: governments who are scared of free media will continue to enable violations by either not acting to stop it or perpetuating it themselves.
The good: more citizens are becoming citizen journalists and more citizens will get online and become aware of the opportunities for expression. Also, attempts to limit media freedom will yield less and less results. Many years ago, a Nigerian dictator jailed an internet service pioneer to stop the dissemination and spread of information. However, long after his death, he is being discussed online.
When Uganda and Zimbabwe shut down the Internet, the information they tried to keep under wraps exploded because it is impossible to limit free speech in the age of circumvention and resilient networks. And it was the same case in Nigeria when it banned Twitter,citizens utilized other social media platforms to continue sharing and receiving information.
Therefore, if ever there was a time we needed to rise and defend the fundamental right that benefits everyone—a free media, it is now. We should all be advocates of free media as free and independent media are a cornerstone of democratic societies. While some may be in the frontline drafting laws, training, litigating, and doing other things, we must all defend in our own little ways. We should all be media freedom advocates.
And whether you have been an advocate or just starting, you will find the African Media Barometer Publications by fesmedia Africa and of course, its recently published AMB Trends Analysis-2011/2021 [an analysis of trends in AMBs for 28 countries for a decade] very useful. According to the AMB Trends Analysis, "Since its inception, the AMB has served as a trusted source of information on the state of media environments and key developments in freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and access to information in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Several press freedom and access to information campaigners have used the AMB over the past two decades to advocate and lobby for reforms and enactment of laws that promote enabling environments, a robust and free press, freedom of expression, and access to information with varying degrees of success and impact."
Muhammed Bello Buhari is a Nigerian-based digital rights activist, freelance journalist and fact-checker with a keen interest in media freedom, digital rights, and internet governance. He's a fellow of the West Africa School of Internet Governance (WASIG).
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).