Press freedom light years away in Africa

Marko Phiri

“IN the shifting relationship between the press and the presidency over nearly two centuries, there has been one primary constant: the dissatisfaction of one with the other. No president has esca

ped press criticism, and no president has considered himself fairly treated.”


This observation was made about the relationship between the press and the presidency in the United States. For Zimbabwe, it is merely two decades, and for other African countries with an obsession for muzzling the press it has been less than half a century. That is counting from 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence.


In The Gambia, the government earlier this year set up its own version of the Media and Information Commission,and much like the Zimbabwean version, it was met with criticism and resistance by the Gambia Press Union.

It seeks to license journalists from the independent press. That is the stinking thinking of Africa’s information czars: put newsmen and women from the private press in a straitjacket and you solve all of the country’s woes!


In Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo has called for a “patriotic press” after winning what the opposition called a flawed poll. International new agencies were not accredited to cover the event. In Ethiopia, press laws are just as restrictive and, as has become the norm on the continent, they are aimed at journalists from private newspapers.


Last year two promi-nent Ethiopian journalists were held by Meles Zenawi’s government for allegedly “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence”. The Ethiopian Information minister then “reaffirmed” that “journalists who publish false information would be punished”.


That could have happened in Zimbabwe! It is safe to say that in Africa, being a journalist is just as hazardous as being a member of the opposition.


African politicians view criticism by the press as inimical to democracy – and this is defined by the ruling parties. In the absence of an unfettered press, would the world have known about the sins of Richard Nixon for example?

In the absence of intrepid news hounds, would the world have known about a man called Pol Pot, a despot called Joseph Mobutu, or an alleged cannibal, Idi Amin Dada?


The exposé on the high crimes of Nixon was only possible through brilliant investigative journalism by two men who are now regarded as among America’s finest sleuths. But does Africa have a place for investigative journalism?


The relationship between the private press and African governments has always bordered on belligerence on the part of governments, with laws promulgated solely to throw critical journalists into the slammer. And if not stinking prison cells, then death itself is not too distant as seen by the murder of Carlos Cordoso in Mozambique. His death has been linked to the greed of the rich and powerful. What is acceptable then becomes what the legendary Willie Musarurwa called “sunshine journalism” – nothing critical of the regime, just puff pieces to make sure you grow corns on your lips kissing those in power!


The polygamous Swazi king has been in the international papers plenty of times with his attempt to criminalise criticism of the royals. But looking at the treatment the royals in Britain have received from the tabloids, it shows we are worlds apart as far as journalistic freedom is concerned.


Societies cannot flourish when information highways are littered with the government’s thought police bent on controlling what people can and cannot read. If society has sacred cows, it means that though they rape, commit all sorts of banditry, they would still share a cup of coffee with you with a clear conscience. Why? Because nobody knows.


Evildoers should be exposed for what they are, and that is the role of the press, both private and public. As John Keane puts it his essay Democracy and Media: Without Foundations (1995), “the redefinition of the public service model (of the press) requires the development of a plurality of non-state media of communication which both function as permanent thorns in the side of political power – helping to minimise political censorship – and serve as the primary means of communication for citizens situated within a pluralistic society”.


While the continent has come up with what would appear to be Africa’s antidote to its perennial woes in the form of Nepad, which makes demands of good governance, how is that good governance possible in the absence of a free press? How will the leaders know how their peers are behaving?


It would be absurd in the absence of a free press to expect governments to monitor themselves! The contagion of African governments not willing to ease their stranglehold on power has formed the anti-people thinking of many information ministries across the continent. Everything in Zimbabwe has been personalised by the regime, and it is no longer about the interest of the people here, but the whims of politicians. The regime has become anti-people.


If media are to flourish in Zimbabwe, a new thinking that defines the role of the press in a democracy should be demanded. And this can only be realised when the men responsible for drafting the draconian press laws give way to other compatriots who do not suffer from paranoia. But, this being Africa, the age of an unfettered press could still be many years away.

Those in power are not yet ready to be accountable to the people who elected them.


Marko Phiri writes from Bulawayo.

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