By Jewel Ike-Obioha
Freedom of the press or media is the freedom of communication and expression through various mediums including electronic media and published materials.
Article 8 of the Tunisian constitution states “the liberties of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly and association are guaranteed and exercised within the conditions defined by the law.” Article 1 of the press code provides for “freedom of the press, publishing, printing, distributing and sale of books and publications.”
One would ask if these statements are actually upheld or mere penned down fallacies to justify the press freedom or the lack thereof.
Since the removal of strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2001, Tunisia’s once-stead media have enjoyed a new lease of life but activists and politicians say the government is now seeking to impose some of the same types of controls as before. Media in Tunisia under President Ben Ali was among the most repressed in Africa and the Arab world in part because of his crackdown on opposition and criticism of his autocratic government.
In recent times, however, things are not looking up for the press in Tunisia and their advances are under threat since two major attacks in 2015 killed more than 60 foreign tourists and increased fears of insecurity. Tunisia has since been under a state of emergency and this has given some officials leverage to curtail some rights in the name of national security.
“Government officials seek to control the media and exert pressure through telephone instructions and practices of the old regime have returned” Neji Bghouri, President of the Tunisian journalists union, said during a news conference.
Kahoula Chabeh, a member of the Tunisian journalists union, said that 41 local and foreign journalists were beaten by police, harassed, insulted or treated aggressively just last month in attempts to prevent them from working.
“Police have returned to old practices to tighten up control on journalists, harass them and intervene in their work under the pretext of the state of emergency and the fight against religious extremism,” Bghouri said.
Other African countries are not left out in this press repression that has eaten deep into the continent’s roots.
Press repression in Uganda
In January of 2015, Lwanga was attacked by a police officer while he, Lwanga, was covering a protest march in Kampala on January 21, 2015. The police officer hit Lwanga with a baton multiple times on his shoulders and head until he fell to the ground, and as he fell, the officer drove his boots into Lwanga’s back, damaging his spine in the process. In March 2017, the officer, Joram Mwesigye, was found guilty of assault by a Ugandan court.
Abdullahi Halakhe, Amnesty International’s East Africa Researcher said about the ruling: “Today’s ruling is a rare victory for freedom of the press in Uganda. It sends a clear message that attacks on journalists must never be accepted or tolerated under any circumstances. It will hopefully assure people working in the media that the courts are watching; willing and ready to uphold their rights.
“Press freedom has become increasingly restricted in Uganda with numerous attacks on media outlets seen as critical of the government in the past year. Today’s court decision offers a chink of light in an otherwise bleak outlook and demonstrates that the judiciary is prepared to defend freedom of expression.”
Four journalists tortured in Sudan
On 5th April 2017, Amnesty International reported that the torture of two journalists abducted en route to Jebel Marra, in Sudan’s Darfur region is not only a grave affront to press freedom but also proof the Sudanese authorities have something to hide in the region. The journalists were abducted due to their persistent investigation on the Darfur chemical attacks that occurred earlier in the year.
“For nearly two months, the two journalists were locked up in a prison and tortured, simply for doing their job. They were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, deliberately deprived of oxygen and subjected to mock executions,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
President John Magufuli’s attack on press freedom in Tanzania
In Tanzania, just like Tunisia and most African countries, while the constitution provides for the freedom of expression as a whole, the situation on the ground continues to be antithetical.
After about two decades of highs and lows, the Media Services Act 2016 was finally passed in November 2016. The passing of the act was not well received by the stakeholders, media practitioners and the opposition camp. The government insisted that the act which, however, repels the infamous Newspaper Act 1976 was going to professionalise journalism; while the other side maintains that it is going to continue to muzzle the media industry.
Tanzanian press felt they had gotten hope with the election of current President John Magufuli in November 2015, but little did they know that oppression will commence again with the passing of this Media Service Act.
How Paul Kagame shut down press freedom in Rwanda
Rwanda ranks 171 in the world for freedom of the press. This is indeed a very stifling position and even though the economy of the country seems relatively stable, freedom of expression which is vital is still impeded.
During the last presidential election which gave victory to the same President Paul Kagame, journalists within the country only reported as the government deemed fit. International observers say it was one of the most orderly and peaceful elections in history but the press still faced stifling conditions and this was only obvious to the people experiencing it in the country. It’s as though a veil has been cast on the Rwandan populace that no one dares speak up on any form of press oppression and even if anyone dares write about it, the Intore militia, an indoctrinated group dedicated to the government’s political agenda, immediately denounces and ridicules the authors saying that their lives in Rwanda were happy.
The cases of press oppression go on and on within the continent. In a recent study by Freedom House, Ghana, previously the only press free country in Africa, declined to partially free as a result of increased ethnic violence by the police, military, political party members; the first killing of a journalist in over 20 years and the continuous electricity outage which impairs media coverage.
However, countries like Burkina Faso made great improvements when she underwent a long investigation into the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo. And also, Cote d’Ivoire benefited from continued openings in its private broadcasting market as well as a reduction in harassment against the press. Togo also made some strides in granting the opposition party press access during the last elections.
We are certainly not there yet as only 13 percent of the world’s countries have complete press freedom, forty-one percent has partially free status and forty-six live in not free media zones. But we can try to do better by abiding by the constitutions which grant us freedom of expression.
Published on Ventures on April 13, 2017.