Between a rock and a hard place is a metaphor that has been used so often lately to describe the plight of journalists in particular; and human rights defenders in general in Somalia. Caught between the impunity of the state and non-state actors, journalism in Somalia is a dangerous occupation. Somali journalists and others in similar settings are often forced to make life-or-death decisions. There are countless tributes from those who, despite political rhetoric, have paid the ultimate price.
World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every May 3rd and celebrated by the global media last Tuesday, is often one Opportunity for sober reflection on the successes and challenges of journalism. In Africa, the picture has become much more complicated, with Somalia at one extreme; In between, there’s a vast gray area where seemingly progressive democracies get away with media repression. In either case, the result is the same – a chilling effect that prevents the media from playing its guardian role effectively.
A major culprit and the preferred avenue of New Age autocrats is legislation. With the possible exception of South Africa, most African countries have repressive media laws designed to protect the status quo rather than promote the right of citizens to transmit and receive information through the media of their choice. like dr Peter Mwesige, a Ugandan media coach, speaking at a public policy debate in Kampala this week, noted that the use of legislative tools to promote political control over the media is becoming more common in Uganda. He might as well have said in Africa in general. Even in countries that may not imprison journalists, a politically hostile attitude towards independent journalism has resulted in journalists being subjected to physical violence by the security forces, summary closures or threats of media closures and criminal prosecution.
From the point of view of those in power, all this leads to the same result. Public debate and engagement is stifled, and as is often the case these days – a flight into unregulated citizen journalism via social media platforms is simply a convenient excuse for even more scrutiny. With citizen journalists elusive and often elusive, it is professional media platforms who ultimately fall victim to new controls.
The truth is that media law was already structured before post-independence Africa the practice of free journalism and of public discourse rather than facilitating it. It may sound a bit hollow that so-called liberation and revolutionary movements that have risen to power across Africa should reinforce rather than dismantle this undignified legacy.
It is both paradoxical and self-defeating. Back in Athens, informed citizens were able to challenge public policy and steer it in the right direction.
It gets worse at the level of the individual practitioner. Journalists working in deplorable conditions with little or no pay are the norm rather than the exception. Journalists living on the edge of survival are vulnerable and undermine professionalism.
Free media and democratic governance are symbiotic relationships. To be effective and independent, the media must be protected from commercial and political pressures. Before they can become agents of public interest, the environment in which journalists operate must be improved, both politically and economically.