East Africa: Threats to Journalists Increase, Media Practitioners Say

Journalists and media operations in the eastern African region continue to face threats from state and non-state actors as those with power seek gag the free press.

Threats and general harassment, jailing and sometimes the killing of journalists have increased in the recent past, especially as governments in the region try to enforce Covid-19 protocols.

Since March 2020 when the pandemic broke out, too many journalists in the region have been facing censorship, intimidation, or violence.

These were the general sentiments shared by journalists, media owners and human rights organisations in the region as they marked the World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Stephen Gitagama, the Chairman of the Media Owners Association (MOA) in Kenya and CEO Nation Media Group, said that there is no debating the fact that when the business is challenged then the risks to free media grow exponentially

"At Nation Media Group, we operate directly in four countries in the region and we have seen how regulatory measures can be used to either promote or stifle independent media," he said.

According to Musalia Mudavadi, the leader of the Amani National Congress party, the media remains a powerful component within the society, as the voice to the voiceless and the watchdog of society. "I call upon journalists to stay true to their calling, be honest and reasonable in their reporting," he said.

In Kenya, the media is facing a systematic but sustained squeezing of the operating space with political leaders preaching media freedom while being in the forefront in harassing the media whenever they are painted in bad light.

According to Churchill Otieno, the President of the Kenya Editors' Guild, the media in Kenya is dealing with integral challenges as it fights to serve and grow public trust, and to remould itself given today's realities on information flow, knowledge economy, and technological disruption.

"This fight, however, is further complicated by an encumbered civil society and the emergence of the gangster politician who is only too happy to grow a cursory constituency," he said.

In Somalia, the media is currently facing a myriad of press freedom challenges involving both federal and regional authorities, and armed groups such as Al-Shabaab. The situation has become even more critical due to the prolonged election impasse since last year.

Deprose Muchena, the Amnesty International Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said that there is a growing concern in Somalia where authorities seek to take journalists to court in what he termed as "persecution through prosecution".

Abdullahi Hassan, who works for Amnesty International in Somalia, said that the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) has been at the forefront of threatening individual Somali journalists, even those working for international media outside the country.

He gave an example of Muhammed Abuja who was held incommunicado by NISA for months before he was tried by the military court and later acquitted.

Abdallah Ahmed Mumin, a Somali journalist, said that media practitioners in the country are killed for merely writing stories on corruption or reporting rape cases from non-state actors.

He told The EastAfrican that the threats to journalists is widespread ranging from armed groups to government security forces, including the police.

In Uganda, journalists face state intimidation and violence almost on a daily basis. This was particularly so during the presidential elections early in the year where media crews covering opposition candidates became targets of physical assault and arrests.

Recently, covering a post-election story outside the United Nations compound in the capital Kampala, journalists were beaten and their equipment destroyed.

In Ethiopia, the media is facing the dual challenge of outright threats from political actors and divisions among themselves on an ethnic basis brought about by conflicts in many regions in the country.

Experts have expressed concerns that the Ethiopian media is finding it difficult to deal with the consequences of a war that began in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed undertook what he called a military operation in the Tigray region.

When the conflict started, there was a total media blackout enforced by the Ethiopian government, which divided the civil society on how the Tigray region was being reported. The result is that the media has taken sides in the many conflicts in the country ranging from Tigray region, Oromia, Benishangul_Gumuz, Afar, and Somali regions.

The president of the Ethiopian Mass Media Organisation, Elias Meseret, who is also the director of Ethiopia Check, said that there are very few fact-checkers in Ethiopia at this time of the conflict.

He said that the office of the government spokesperson was scrapped three years ago and journalists have no way to get accurate information because the press persons at the Prime Minister's office just post statements but do not interact with the media.

"Some journalists have been threatened by some actors, which means journalists who are supposed to pass accurate information to the public are too scared to do their jobs," he told The EastAfrican.

Mr Meseret, who is also a correspondent with the Associated Press, observed that the polarisation of regional media is apparent where regional media are affiliating themselves with regional governments instead of practicing independent journalism. At the same time, the local media has no fruitful engagement with the international media and the government.

But Sehin Teferra, the head of Setaweet Feminist Collective Network, blames the media for becoming the victims of the ethnonationalism that came up after Dr Abiy came to power in 2018, and which is now threatening the unity of the country and dividing the media.

She Teferra took issue with the fact that the Tigray region is receiving most of the international attention, while the media has pushed gender-based violence, that include gang-rape of girls and old women in Benishangul_Gumuz and Oromia, to the back burner.

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