Suomi/Africa
Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland
 
 

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans

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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Acting on attacks on African media

Led by Secretary-General Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) (www.rwb.org) maintains a network of correspondents in 150 countries, each of which seeks to protect media freedoms, and to act in defence of media operatives. It issued over a thousand press releases in 2013 on violations of media freedom. However, in addition to its press releases, RWB produces reports and periodical publications, and schedules events throughout the year to promote press freedom. For example, on I2 March 214 RWB held an event on cyber censorship, to highlight action against the dissemination of information online. A third of Web users do not have free access to information posted on the Internet.

Much of the work of RWB is funded privately, through donations - though there is a measure of governmental funding. Interestingly, however, its principle source of revenue - accounting for around 45 per cent of its budget - is generated through publications of the work of photojournalists. It needs the money to act against increasing numbers of media violations. Every year, around 500 journalists are arrested, a thousand are assaulted, and over 50 media outlets are censored. RWB uses its Press Freedom Index to track such violations and to promote calls for action to deliver advocacy, expertise and impact on conditions for media entities and individuals.

Media types in Namibia

The Suomi/Africa network participated in a forum on press freedoms held recently in Helsinki, in Finland, by the Finnish chapter of RWB. Robin Tyson, who hails from the University of Namibia, and who is a key member of the Suomi/Africa network, spoke on the situation for press activity in his country and also in Southern Africa.

Namibia has a free media environment. It is lively, it is outspoken. It is unrestrained. There has been no arrests or harassments of journalists. There have been no killings of media types. There has been no censorship of shut downs of media companies, representing in print and online, in radio and on television. Though there is a measure of government interference, this is distinct in Africa, where the majority of countries' administrations limit press activity. Also, there is active interception of text messages nationwide in Namibia, which means journalists can be tracked. A law has been enacted recently, too, to impose registration of journalists operating in the country. Popular political and current affairs programmes have been taken off-air recently, in an election year in the country. And the ruling party in the country - SWAPO - wants to close down access to Facebook, actually because members within the party were using Facebook as a platform to criticise each other, rather than because of any activist's use of the online social community.

MISA’s commitment to freedom of expression

Mr Tyson referred to the 20th publication by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) of So This is Democracy - its annual account of the state of media freedom in the 11 Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries in which MISA operates. MISA is committed to promoting media freedom and freedom of expression in Southern Africa, and unceasingly highlights violations against media workers. This year, MISA chose to focus on the theme of “media behind bars”, as it recorded many cases in 2013 of authorities arresting journalists, detaining them, interrogating them, and confiscating their equipment and materials. MISA notes that there was also an increase in the number of physical attacks on media workers during 2013.

The Ugandan context

Simon Kaheru, a journalist of 25 years' standing, spoke of his experience of the media environment in Uganda. Simon provides communications advisory services and media analysis. He contextualised his nation's media with a history of intellectualism in politics and journalism, begun during the British colonial era. At that time, and since, radio communication was used to inform blue collar workers of working times and availability.

In the 1960s, following independence, Ugandan newspapers were of very high quality, and enjoyed high circulation. However, quality has been compromised through the actions of repressive governments, as politicians have interfered in press activity. An ongoing collapse in media freedoms over five decades means that President Museveni of Uganda, who as elected on a platform which included the promotion of media freedoms, was welcomed warmly by the nation's populace. And, between 1996 and 2001, there was massive growth in private media, on the back of liberalisation.

A positive example of the consequence of support for media freedom is the formation of 200 FM radio stations broadcasting today, and formed since Museveni's election. However, a negative consequence of such radio broadcasting growth is that the stations have been formed or co-opted by political entities, and so the broadcast media focus on development and on commerce can be described, at best, as limited. This is a distorted situation for indigenous media, given that Uganda bears a vibrant record of economic growth and regional engagement.

Mr Kaheru called for the education of journalists and of people is key to change in Uganda. People do not know enough about the value of its media. Citizen journalists can change the landscape, and people need to know more about the use of social media too challenge media and to support media.

Kenya’s media environment

Dommie Yambo-Odotte details Kenya’s media environment at the 2014 Freedom of Speech and Development Seminar in Helsinki, Finland

Hailing from Kenya, Dommie Yambo-Odotte highlighted the media issues in her country. Dommie works for Development Through Media, which was set up to identify a gap in the media environment, a lack of credible and accurate information about development in the country and within East Africa. Colonial Kenya was a nation in which the media was heavily controlled, in which colonial wrongs - including torture and harassment by authorities - were not known through media at all, but a propaganda prevailed in which the British nation was portrayed as a positive paternalistic power.

The British-backed authorities set up a state broadcasting operation, but they did not leave Kenya with a system for education through media. Its sole station was totally under governmental control until 1991, when the Kenyan nation eventually adopted a more democratic legal framework. There are now more than 80 radio stations, and six television stations. This represents real progress for media types, but there remains the influence of political activists and party leaders on the nation's media output. Integrity is compromised, reporters are paid poorly and so they work can be influenced easily. The predominant trend towards 'ethnic' distinctions in Kenya led, also, to imbalances in reporting and even incitement to act unlawfully in politicians' interests.

However, the Kenyan Constitution introduced in 2010 following political turbulence, included a commitment to legislation to empower media practitioners. Ms Yambo-Odotte welcomed this development, but has found in the years since its introduction that the mandates of media houses and the training of journalists needs to be refined and intellectualised before it can achieve a satisfactorily balanced representation of public and private sector developments in the country. Most of all, as a Kenyan women leading the way on developmental issues in her country, owning several media channels operating online and in broadcasting, Ms Yambo-Odotte seeks a new media environment to represent more fully the role of women in driving Kenyan society forward in all sectors.

Ethiopian affairs

Speaking of her experience in Ethiopia, Meskerem Lemma explained the politicisation of private media, similar to that represented by her colleagues, and her concerns. Ethiopia's sole television station and ten radio entities follow the government line when reporting political and current affairs. Journalists are paid poorly, and lack the resources to challenge the status quo. News reporting is, therefore, a lot less than incisive. There is no professional journalism, and here are no professional media managers. The problem is compounded because the public at large are not educated in the value of free media environment.

A serious case of harassment in Swaziland

With Bheki Mukhubu detained and subject to harassment, it was left to Robin Tyson to speak on Swaziland's media environment, and the repression of the people and their media actively exercised by the Swazi authorities and judiciary. Robin spoke of The Nation, which Bheki edits, of previous attempts to harass Bheki in response to articles promoting governance and human rights, and of his most recent arrest and incarceration, in March 2014, for criticising the judiciary. Bheki would have spoken at the RWB event, on freedom of speech and media freedoms, but his continuing imprisonment in a high-security jail precluded his appearance to speak. Swazi journalists are known to be afraid to comment on Bheki's for fear of arrest. Bheki was brave enough to speak out, and to publish his opinions. His case is a cause worth fighting for.