Redefining safety of journalists in Africa in an uncertain world

IMS Sub-Saharan Africa Adviser Rashweat Mukundu reflects on what the situation of journalists in Gaza under the current war means for journalists in Africa’s conflict or authoritarian states.

Africa is now more prone to conflict as a result of a number of causes, key being poor governance that have seen coup governments rising in the Sahel, persistent conflict in Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia among many others. Yet as the world marks the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on 2 November 2023, the conflict in Gaza, in which 31 and possibly more journalists have been killed, the majority Palestinian and among them Israelis and Lebanese, looms large on how journalists will be treated in Africa’s conflict or authoritarian states.

The conflict in Gaza has possibly set a new standard upon which journalists’ safety issues will be viewed and treated in Africa. It is a much lower standard as many African states have been struggling with instituting mechanisms that allow free and safe operational space for journalists. 

The stakes are therefore high in discussions on 2 November on how journalists could best be protected in an era of multiple and seemingly unending conflicts and global dissention. Conflicts in countries such as Ethiopia have already seen tens of journalists arrested on political grounds and hermit countries like Eritrea, which has imprisoned tens of journalists, are now emboldened by the deteriorating indexes on global safety of journalists.

Authoritarian regimes love company and love examples that they can point to as worse than themselves. They love lines to be blurred, for everyone to become like them. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have provided that cover for African governments who may want to act with impunity against journalists. The stark reality is that the shifting global power and ideological contests, the push back against liberal democracies is also being reflected and playing out in some African countries. Authoritarian regimes not only have sides to choose but are also being financed and tooled in reorienting politics towards repression, undermining democracy and in that undermining journalistic rights and free expression. Africa is seemingly back into the cold war era, sadly not on its own terms but as dictated by varying global powers.

There is a growing conflation of the decolonisation agenda with anti-westernism, which is interpreted as aligning with Russia. In the streets of Niamey, Niger’s capital, the Russia flag was soon waved in support on a coup in July 2023. It may be difficult to prove, but the common person in Niger simply wants a functional government that delivers. Still, there is a no doubt that global powers such as Russia see an opportunity to perpetuate its global influence by riding on Africa’s desperation.

The two agendas of decolonisation and anti-westernism are poles apart, but bringing these issues together serves the interests of African authoritarian regimes who now clamp down on dissent under the name of decolonisation. It was not a surprise that when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa visited Moscow in July 2023, the Russia embassy in South Africa denied accreditation to South Africa’s leading investigative journalism newsroom, the Daily Maverick. The Daily Maverick was seen as too independent by the Russians to tag along the South Africa president. In essence the emerging and despotic global political order sees journalists and media as predominantly political actors who must be controlled, leashed or worse – jailed or killed. What the war in Gaza with its many body bags of journalists has done is to give credence to this argument with far worse consequences for journalists and media in Africa. 

Impunity against journalists is not only being seen in arrests and violence but also in the weaponisation of online spaces. Under the cover of technology, some African governments are leading an onslaught on journalists, with the violence against women journalists being far worse online. Access to multiple platforms of communication, including social media, are also being used by media abusers, with women journalists again reporting increased harassment including invasion of privacy and sexual harassment among others. In Zimbabwe a senior state broadcast manager was suspended after recordings of his sexual harassment of a junior woman employee were published. Sadly with all its opportunities for increased audience reach and innovative ways of sharing content, the online spaces have equally opened another avenue for abusing journalists. Africa’s challenges on this matter include securing online spaces, but any talk of regulating online spaces to protect journalists is seen as endorsement of severe online restrictions. 

Africa and the world are therefore commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in what appears to be a perfect storm. That is a world deeply polarised, increasing conflict and global responses seemingly overwhelmed. Yet amid all this darkness, some African governments are doing well in reforming media spaces and enhancing the safety of journalists. In Zambia, criminal defamation was scrapped in 2022. For all its political contradictions, Zimbabwe had no arrests of journalists during its controversial August 2023 elections, and this is attributed partly to IMS-supported media and security sector dialogues, building trust between media and authorities. In Tanzania, the government has started dialogues on reforming the repressive Media Services Act, with IMS partners actively working together in coalitions and advocating for reforms. In Ethiopia, IMS has supported its partners in setting up a Safety of Journalists coalition.

The lesson from these examples and many other efforts by local and international media groups is that impunity against journalists is likely to end through more awareness on role of media at a local level and trust building among key stakeholders such as journalists, police and policy makers. In the global crisis on journalistic rights, defending free expression needs strong local civil society that is able to act on its own and on its own issues. The hope is that discussions on this day focus on solutions, not politics. The lesson is to go hyper local and strengthen local mechanisms. When the international community fails, at least the local community can protect itself. Above all, it is important to remind ourselves than when journalists are silenced, the rest, mostly the vulnerable, are silenced.