Article by Jon Pienaar
Media freedom and open information are hallmarks of democracies. But even states that refer to themselves as democratic have resorted to curtailing press freedom in the name of ‘security’.
Due at least in part to WikiLeaks and the Edward Snowden ‘affair’, governments around the world are trying to create legal impediments to the free flow of information.
FIRST, THE BAD NEWS
Media freedom is under attack – that’s the headline finding of the World Press Freedom Index, the second global study that ranks press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). Media freedom is on the decline in all continents except Asia, where the indicator remains unchanged. The Middle East and Africa showing the worst decrease in media transparency.
In Africa, 2013 was notable for a rise in physical attacks against media workers. “Terrorists,” the report states, “do not feel bound by the Geneva Conventions, which protect civilians, including journalists, during armed conflict.” In fact, journalists are “high-value targets in an ‘information war’.”
Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) blames Somalia’s Islamist militia Al-Shabaab, for most of the 45 murders of journalists in that country since 2007, making Somalia the deadliest country for media personnel.
The Index highlights how conflicts have impacted on freedom of information, through “a tendency to interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed,” according to the report. There is a “growing threat worldwide” that endangers freedom of information in countries that count themselves as democracies.
CONSTRICTING INFORMATION FLOW
The World Press Freedom Index compares the 2014 rankings with the previous year, and Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) have fallen considerably in the rankings. Both countries are embroiled in armed conflict. The CAR dropped from 65th place to 109th, losing a massive 43 places. Mali dropped 22 places in the ranking, from 99th position on the list, to 122nd. This, out of a total of 180 countries surveyed worldwide.
Burundi is also singled out, having dropped to position 142 in the rankings, partly due to the senate passing a law restricting freedom of journalists in the run-up to the presidential election. Kenya had a considerable drop of 18 points to 90th place, following the way in which the government responded to the media’s coverage of the Westgate Mall attacks, and a law that created a special court to judge audio-visual content.
Countries with rankings that were unable to improve their standing included Somalia, unchanged at 176th; and Nigeria, at 112th – mainly as a result of “the activities of guerrillas and terrorist groups.” Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at 151st, has been unable to contain the internecine violence that has destabilised the country and also threatens freedom of information.
The report on the Index has a section entitled “Descent Into Hell Continues In The Horn Of Africa” which finds that poverty and authoritarianism are highest in these East African countries (Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia), and that “civil liberties are collateral victims.” Eritrea has the distinction of having “the biggest prison for the media. A total of 28 journalists are currently detained.”
Central Africa, while generally not as dire as in the east, is flagged as “continuing decline” in the report, with Chad, Cameroon and DRC criticised for using dubious legal methods, such as defamation laws, to persecute journalists.
Angola also fell under the spotlight for arresting journalist Rafael Marques de Morais over his book ‘Diamantes de Sangue: Corrupção e Tortura em Angola’ (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola).
SOME GOOD NEWS
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. South Africa’s president Zuma received a thumbs-up from the RSF assessors, as he has “refused to sign a law that would have endangered investigative journalism” – bringing the country up 11 points in the rankings to 42nd place.
Technology is also a factor in democratising information: traditional media are being supported or replaced by new types of news and information providers, as was first witnessed in the “Arab Spring”, when citizen journalists and Tweeters filled in the gaps where mainstream media was constrained.
Namibia is ranked 22nd in the world, which puts it in the same league as the Nordic countries, Central Europe and New Zealand.
The tradition of press freedom dates back to the 17th century – in fact, John Milton argued for it in his ‘Areopagitica’ in 1644, although it was only enacted in England in 1695, and of course, freedom of the press is enshrined in the South African constitution (Chapter 2(a)).
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF) is both an advocacy group and aid organisation for journalists throughout the world. Based in France, the non-profit organisation provides material, financial and psychological assistance to journalists assigned to dangerous areas, and promotes free and open media throughout the world. RSF has released its second annual World Press Freedom Index, wherein it ranks countries according to their levels of press freedom.