African broadcasting freedom of expression: the strange case of the dog that didn't bark

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Freedom of expression in the media has not been the kind of hot political issue in Africa that it should have been. A small but tireless group of NGOs plugs away at the issue year after year but it’s not something that seems to catch light: the man or woman on the matatu is not generally discussing it. Africa’s first generation of nationalist politicians seem to have successfully persuaded their peoples that stomachs came before mouths. This week sees the publication of a UNESCO study of what might sound the rather dryly titled Media Legislation in Africa: A comparative legal survey by Professor Guy Berger. Russell Southwood looks at what’s at stake.

In the short 30 or so weeks since this e-letter African Broadcast, Film and Convergence started publishing, we have covered the following items:

• In issue 13, forces of the Somali Transitional Government forced their way into the building of the Shabelle Media Network (who run Popular Radio) and arrested 19 staff members.

• In the same issue Rwandan Interior Minister Sheikh Musa Fazil Harerimana said the government would hold reporters responsible for using leaked documents. "If a journalist writes a story quoting a letter smuggled to him, he is equally liable to punishment. He has to tell us who gave him the letter before his case is dropped." The Minister appeared on a programme that featured a panel of government ministers and representatives from the security forces.

• In issue 12, in Kinshasa at least four journalists were questioned for several hours by the intelligence services, a private TV station (CCTV/RALIK) was closed, and a tape recording of an interview with a rebel leader was seized.

• In the same issue, Niger’s state-run broadcast regulator, the High Council on Communications has banned the broadcast of live debates on an armed rebellion of nomadic Tuaregs in the north of the uranium-rich West African nation, according to local journalists. Attacks by Tuareg fighters have killed at least 45 soldiers since February, according to Reuters. The ruling on Tuesday was linked to the broadcast of a live panel that contained commentary critical of the government's handling of the conflict.

• In issue 8, Nigeria's leading independent broadcast network said it would take the government to court next after authorities demolished three new station facilities in the capital, Abuja. African Independent Television (AIT) plans to sue for damages after the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), a local government entity, last week bulldozed without warning three structures, including a digital studio, a technical operations office, and a common room for news anchors. AIT Chairman Raymond Dokpesi said he believes the demolition was politically motivated and was intended to intimidate the station because of its critical coverage during the recent elections in May.

• In issue 8, the Hon. Ansu Kaikai of the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) allegedly threatened to shut down Radio Wanjei in Pujehun and have its Station Manager arrested if he allowed members of the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) in the Diaspora to sensitize its membership about the August polls on the radio.

• Issue 7 reported the closure a Congolese community radio station in Mayi-Munene by National Intelligence Agency officers because it was functioning without the ANR's approval."

• In issue 6 we reported that the Senegalese Government had sent in four truckloads of armed soldiers to close down private radio station, Premier FM owned by Madiambal Diagne who has long been a thorn in the flesh of Senegal’s ruling elite. He had first requested a frequency in November 2003. The request was denied with the explanation that Dakar’s frequencies were saturated. However, others continued to be issued with frequencies despite the so-called saturation. Finally to overcome these obstacles, Diagne bought a radio station with a pre-existing frequency licence.

• In issue 5 a man suspected of having insulted Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni during a talkshow on NBS radio in Jinja was arrested. Richard Ssenyonga alias Madiru was on May 21 picked by the Criminal Investigations Department boss Willy Panuha from the Bus Park in Jinja where he works. Eastern Region Police Commander Christopher Kubai told journalists on Tuesday Ssenyonga admitted having called the radio but said he was disconnected before he could convey his message to the President. Kubai said immediately the talkshow hosts realised Ssenyonga's intention to embarrass the President, they cut him off and alerted police who started hunting him.

• In issue 4 a journalist for Al-Jazeera and the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, was sentenced to six months in prison on charges of "possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country" in connection with an Al-Jazeera documentary she made about torture in Egypt. The court also fined her 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,518). An Egyptian national, Taha is currently free on bail in Qatar, pending appeal.

• In issue 3, we reported that Nigeria’s State Security Services (SSS) raided the Abuja office of the African Independent Television (AIT) on April 17th and reportedly carted away transmission tapes of the station (including a documentary on then President Obasanjo). The raid took place barely 48 hours after the company's transmitters and transmission equipment were razed by fire on Sunday disrupting transmission of both AIT and RayPower signals in Lagos area.

• In issue 3, Ghanaian reporter Kojo Hayford and cameraman Lord Asante Fordjour of TV3, an independent Accra-based television station, were mistreated by Raymond Gbegoah, coordinating director of Akuapem South District Assembly in the eastern region of Ghana. Gbegoah slapped Fordjour and insulted the two journalists before chasing them out of his office. The MFWA correspondent reported that the incident occurred at the district office, where Hayford and Fordjour had gone to interview Gbegoah about a mountain of refuse at a market in Nsawam, the district capital. It was learned that, immediately following the incident, Gbegoah dispatched a team to remove the refuse.

• In issue 2 the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Zimbabwe warned of an increasingly hostile working environment after the abduction and subsequent murder of a freelance reporter, and the arrest and torture of two other foreign correspondents.

These items are merely the tip of a much larger pyramid (we could fill pages with just these items) in which those in power quite casually use either force or their power to close down or influence debate. And whilst Professor Guy Berger’s study may sound dry and unattractive, it is these issues that it is addressing by asking what legislation exists to cover “the ground rules” for how the media might operate in a plural society.

The report Media Legislation in Africa covers the position in 10 countries that represent a reasonable cross-section of the continent by language and geography: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia.

Abdul Waheed Khan, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, UNESCO goes to the heart of the matter in the report’s foreward:

“Over the last two decades, media independence and pluralism in Africa have rapidly increased. In several countries, vibrant civil societies and new media legislative frameworks have enabled the proliferation of private

broadcasters and of community media. Some state media outlets have also undertaken reforms aiming at their transformation into public service broadcasters”.

However, there is still some distance to travel as a close analysis of the report makes clear. Only one country (Ethiopia) out of the 10 still only allows state broadcasters. However five countries (Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique and Tanzania) still do not allow national licences to private broadcasters.

For example, Tanzania still has on the statute book a 1994 directive (as part of the 1993 Broadcasting Sources Act) that states that private radio and TV stations cannot broadcast to more than 25% of the population. Not allowing national licences is a way for Government to retain a monopoly at that level, although to be fair, a number of these countries allow broadcast stations in the capital.

In the remaining countries, there is at a legislative level no formal difficulty in obtaining a private licence to broadcast. However, as one can see from the Senegal item above, this does not prevent Governments from choosing rather carefully who to exclude.

The more diverse the media, the greater the likelihood that Government will have difficulty in controlling freedom of expression. But this is also – like telecoms – also a commercial opportunity that will bring jobs and skills. There are now two broad categories of African countries: those that have a flourishing media sector that supports tens or hundreds of broadcast stations, depending on the size of the economy. And their economic and population size-equivalents that have only 2-3 state-run broadcast stations. Which would you prefer your country to be?

The report can be downloaded by clicking on the following link: