Africa’s free press problem:
Why press freedom has dropped off West’s agenda

By Mohamed Keita

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's Prime Minister is among African leaders constantly praised by the West for being a reformer.

As Africa’s economies grow, an insidious attack on press freedom is under way. Independent African journalists covering the continent’s development are now frequently persecuted for critical reporting on the misuse of public finances, corruption and the activities of foreign investors.

Why this disturbing trend? In the West, cynicism about African democracy has led governments to narrow their development priorities to poverty reduction and stability; individual liberties like press freedom have dropped off the agenda, making it easier for authoritarian rulers to go after journalists more aggressively. In the 1990s, leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were praised by the West as political and social reformers. Today, the West extols these men for achieving growth and maintaining stability, which they do largely with a nearly absolute grip over all national institutions and the press.

Then there’s the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, China has been depending on technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neo-colonialists.

In January, Beijing issued a white paper calling for accelerated expansion of China’s news media abroad and the deployment of a press corps of 100,000 around the world, particularly in priority regions like Africa. In the last few months alone, China established its first TV news hub in Kenya and a print publication in South Africa. The state-run Xinhua news agency already operates more than 20 bureaus in Africa. More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, called “truthful” coverage of development fueled by China’s activities.

China and African governments tend to agree that the press should focus on collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather than report on divisive issues or so-called negative news. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ethiopia, which remains one of the West’s foremost recipients of development assistance and whose largest trading partner and main source of foreign investment is China. The prisons in Ethiopia, like those in China, are now filled with journalists and dissidents, and critical Web sites are blocked.

This is particularly troubling in Ethiopia, a country where investigative journalism once saved countless lives. In the 1980s, the tyrannical president Mengistu Haile Mariam denied that a famine was happening in Ethiopia, even as it deepened. The world did not move to assist millions of starving Ethiopians until international journalists broke the dictator’s stranglehold on information.

Nearly three decades later, Ethiopia is still mired in a cycle of humanitarian crises and conflicts. But today, journalists are denied independent access to sensitive areas and risk up to 20 years in prison if they report about opposition groups designated by the government as terrorists. “We are not supposed to take pictures of obviously malnourished kids,” an Ethiopia-based reporter recently told me. “We are effectively prevented from going to areas and health facilities where severely malnourished kids are, or are being treated.”

This silencing in turn frustrates the ability of aid groups to quickly mobilize funds when help is needed. And with civil society, the political opposition and the press severely restricted, there is hardly any domestic scrutiny over how the government uses billions of dollars of international assistance from Western governments.

Rwanda is another worrisome case. The volume of trade between Rwanda and China increased fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad.

As powerful political and economic interests tied to China’s investments seek to stamp out independent reporting, a free African press is needed more than ever, as a key institution of development, a consumer watchdog and a way for the public to contextualize official statistics about joblessness, inflation and other social and economic concerns. But support for the press, in order to be effective, will have to mean more than just supporting journalism training and publishing capacity; if such efforts are to succeed, they must be integrated into a wider strategy of political and media reforms.

Mohamed Keita is the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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