Many African leaders continue to offer a false choice between stability and press freedom. Taking a cue from China, a key investor and model, they stress social stability and development over openness and reform. By Mohamed Keita
Tommo Monthe, a seasoned Cameroonian diplomat, appeared at a human rights forum alongside the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and extolled the primacy of … development. “Poverty is a challenge to the enjoyment of rights,” Monthe declared at the October 2011 event at U.N. headquarters. “Roads, pumps, railroads, all kinds of development equipment in Africa are keys to the enjoyment of such rights.” Back home, Cameroonian authorities have detained and harassed dozens of journalists in recent years for scrutinizing the use of public funds intended for just that kind of infrastructure. One, editor Cyrille Germain Ngota Ngota, died in state custody in 2010, having been imprisoned for investigating alleged public corruption in the oil sector.
More and more, African leaders are arguing that freedom of the press and human rights are unattainable so long as poverty persists. They cite their plans, real and otherwise, to eradicate poverty as reason to suppress media scrutiny and dissident voices. Taking a cue from China, which has an expanding role on the continent as an investor and model, they stress social stability and development over openness and reform. As a result, national priorities, public spending, and corruption go unquestioned. Political dissent is stamped out, and the tales of people left out of economic development, particularly in rural areas, go untold.
In January, for example, the outgoing African Union chairman, President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi, signed into law an amendment to the country’s penal code giving the information minister unchecked authority to block the reporting of any news the government deems not to be in the public’s interest. The move came as members of the ruling party were seeking a number of court injunctions to stop investigative reporting about the management of public funds, including the payment of large salaries to public servants. Media and civil society groups have challenged the constitutionality of the amendment, and its application was suspended pending a determination by the High Court.
“Poverty has made people cynical about human rights and democracy,” said Faith Pansy Tlaluka, the African Union special rapporteur on freedom of expression. But she noted the inherent connection between press freedom and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the eight anti-poverty benchmarks that world leaders committed in 2000 to reach by 2015. “It is hardly possible to address the [goals] without citizen participation, freedom of expression, and information.”
Yet many African leaders continue to offer a false choice between stability and press freedom, justifying press restrictions by invoking the primacy of economic development. In March, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh bluntly warned journalists in such terms. “If you’re interested in development, you want peace and stability, then you don’t have anything to fear from me,” Jammeh said. Calling himself “a dictator of development,” Jammeh said he would not sacrifice Gambian stability for freedom of expression or freedom of the press. “You have a positive role to play in national development, peace, and stability,” he told journalists. The warning sought to deter the local press from reporting on human rights abuses as the government pursued an aggressive international marketing campaign to revive its tourism sector.
In May, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused local and international media of endangering national economic interests by covering the brutal repression of opposition-led protests over high fuel prices. Calling independent media “irresponsible” and “enemies of Uganda’s recovery,” Museveni asserted that coverage “scared away some of the tourists who were planning to come here,” as well as foreign investors. Museveni’s government has introduced a proposal to parliament to criminalize reporting that the government considers “economic sabotage.”
Echoing Museveni’s rhetoric, Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang asserted in July that critical press coverage was to blame for hindering Africa’s progress. “Africa is moving towards development in order to move beyond the bad image that some media use,” said Obiang, whose government seized unflattering footage of slums from a ZDF German television crew in June. Speaking about the country he has ruled for more than 32 years, all the while stifling press freedom and dissent, Obiang claimed citizens held “widespread satisfaction” with its progress. To spread this message further, the government hired international public relations firms to issue glowing press releases about strides in development, according to news reports. But in fact, the country remained in the bottom third of many development indicators, including the Mo Ibrahim Index, which assesses governance quality, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index. The nation ranked poorly even as an oil boom and Chinese infrastructure investment fueled Equatorial Guinea’s economy.
China overtook the West as Africa’s biggest trading partner in 2009, according to news reports, and the most imposing symbol of China’s influence could be China State Construction Engineering Corp.’s massive US$150 million expansion of the headquarters of the African Union. A 2006 Beijing summit between Chinese and African leaders laid the groundwork for cooperation, an alternative to dependence on the West with its requirements for human rights and reform.
Of the 11 African economies identified by the World Bank as among the world’s fastest growing in 2011, only five–Ghana, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Nigeria–have achieved a decent record of press freedom in CPJ’s assessment. The others–Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Republic of Congo–took an authoritarian approach to the press that was much like that of Beijing. Combined, those countries received more than one-fifth of China’s total foreign direct investment in 2010, according to Chinese government data.
Following the path of Chinese leaders, the former Marxist rebels who have ruled Ethiopia since 1991 have blocked websites featuring dissenting political views with what is “the most extensive” Internet censorship infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Rebekah Heacock, a project coordinator with OpenNet Initiative, which monitors filtering and surveillance globally. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has imprisoned dissidents and enacted laws severely restricting the press, political opposition, and civil society; like China, Ethiopia is one of the foremost jailers of journalists in the world.
“We do not follow the liberal democratic principles which the Western countries are pushing us to follow,” asserted Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in an October 2010 interview with the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America. “Our strategy is totally different from the Western way or approach, because we have to get out of this rampant poverty as soon as possible.” In July, before a panel of the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Genenew Assefa, a senior political adviser to Ethiopia’s government, indicated that for the administration, development trumps human rights. Speaking about the government’s five-year development plan, Assefa said, “It is premised on the notion that without the well-being, without food security, all the other democratic rights would be hollow. A starving people, huh? Priority should be given to overcoming abject poverty and providing every citizen security to life, and that is the direction that my country is going.”
In April, Zenawi announced plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. According to news reports, the dam is part of a five-year growth plan that focuses on, among other things, energy and telecommunications infrastructure. (The Chinese company ZTE Corp. has installed and financed a US$1.5 billion telecom network in Ethiopia, news reports said.) Former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada said in an October interview with The Christian Science Monitor that the ruling party is so convinced that only its leadership can lead the country to prosperity that it believes “all other organizations should be brought on board or eliminated.”
Critical media outlets are apparently among those organizations. Beginning in June, authorities invoked a vague and unsubstantiated plot to destroy electrical and telecommunications infrastructure as reason to arrest four critical local journalists under the country’s far-reaching antiterrorism law. Columnist Reeyot Alemu of the weekly Feteh, for instance, had criticized the country’s development plan for paying scant attention to democratization and human rights, and dissident blogger Eskinder Nega criticized Zenawi’s diplomacy with Egypt over the dam project, according to CPJ research. A former journalist with Ethiopia’s government-controlled state media, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Ethiopia, told CPJ that ruling party officers appointed to senior editorial positions discouraged journalists from carrying out investigative reports critically examining the government’s plan. “They told me the media promotes development,” the former journalist said.
A 2010 University of Oxford study on China’s influence on African media cited “the partially overlapping ideas of ‘positive reporting’ in China and ‘developmental journalism’ in Africa, both of which stress the importance of focusing on collective achievements and offering citizens tools to contribute to national development rather than reporting on divisive issues or sensational negative news.” The report noted that the Chinese intensified training of African journalists beginning in 2005, in an engagement that “privileges state media over private media in contrast with the Western focus on supporting civil society or private press.”
Africa’s “developmental journalism” emerged in the post-independence, Cold War era of the 1960s and 1970s. “Development journalism supposedly was an effort to report on development, but it usually turned out to be propaganda-based, often designed solely to favor a particular government,” said veteran reporter and journalism professor Arnold Zeitlin. In the view of veteran Zimbabwean journalist Bill Saidi, post-independence governments in southern Africa still expect the media to provide developmental journalism. “Criticism of the government is considered ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘disloyal,'” he said.
In South Africa, which is China’s largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, the ruling African National Congress has castigated the independent press as unethical, biased, and Western-influenced in response to media scrutiny of its record on poverty, crime, and corruption. In June, government spokesman Jimmy Manyi announced a new policy to use state advertising expenditures to reward media outlets that “told the truth” about the party’s anti-poverty achievements, according to news reports. The next month, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula accused the local media of practicing “British-style” journalism by scrutinizing the private business dealings of ruling party youth leaders, who he said “have raised contentious issues for the benefit of the majority of our people, who are black and landless.”
Andrew Kanyegirire, a former journalist who is now head of communications for an Africa Union agency that promotes both democracy and development, said the journalistic concept of “being detached, being truthful, being neutral, reporting what you see, doing things in interest of being a watchdog” has become “un-African” in the eyes of some leaders and opinion-makers.
“At a continental level, the ’80s were a lost decade in terms of development, with the famine for instance. The ’90s were about establishing good governance, democracy as a basis for development, with elections, free press, human rights, civil liberties,” said Kanyegirire. The 2000 commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, he said, marked a shift. “As far as I am concerned, we were going back to the ’60s, ’70s, where the end goal was development,” Kanyegirire said. “Here, the expectation is that all key sectors, agencies, spheres of society focus on development–that applies to media and journalists. There is a veiled, implicit call to pay credence to the father of the nation, or mother of the nation.”
This notion has stretched as far as sports coverage. During a March press conference after Cameroon’s loss to Senegal in a soccer match, Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o snapped at Senegalese reporter Moussa Tandian after the journalist raised a critical question about the team’s disappointing performance. “You journalists, certain journalists like you, you who do not want Africa to advance, you who do not want Cameroon to advance, you are always negative. Try to change a little,” Eto’o said, pointing at Tandian.
Even some in the Western donor community have seemed to weigh the importance of development against that of human rights. When a journalist from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter questioned Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson about Stockholm’s US$37 million aid to Ethiopia in light of Addis Ababa’s imprisonment of two Swedish reporters, Carlsson said: “We have been clear about what we say are major deficits in democracy and human rights. At the same time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is successful in fighting poverty and has assumed major responsibility in climate negotiations.”
But injustices have sprung from the pursuit of development detached from human rights and free expression. In an August 2011 report, the U.N. secretary-general examined African nations’ progress in line with the democracy and development goals outlined in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a plan charted by AU heads of state in 2001. The U.N. report found “strong economic growth and improvement in social development indicators, especially in health and education” but also cited ongoing violations of human rights and “the systematic exclusion of significant portions of society from institutions of political governance.”
In a May editorial in the Ethiopian newspaper Addis Fortune, Kenichi Ohashi, former Ethiopia country director for the World Bank, warned of the consequences of development without democracy. “The long-run stability and resilience of any system come from continual adaptation to changing circumstances. That in turn requires the free flow of information, even when the message is not what the top leaders hoped to hear, and the space for vigorous contestation of ideas.”
South African journalist Joe Thloloe, who was repeatedly imprisoned during apartheid in a career that has spanned more than 50 years, observed, “It’s not an either/or.” One can be democratic and “at the same time ensure that you don’t go hungry,” he said. “If the press doesn’t highlight the wrongs in society, in addition to good things happening, there’s nobody who will be paying attention to the wrongs and devoting time to resolve them.”
That concept is in danger now. In South Africa, the ANC has pushed legislative measures to criminalize investigative journalism and allow officials to classify as secret virtually any piece of government information in the name of “national interest.” The National Assembly approved the controversial bill in November, sending it to the National Council of Provinces for consideration in late year. Under the proposed measures, investigative reports on government shortcomings, such as a May 2 Daily Dispatch story on the poor living conditions of citizens in Eastern Cape, could be suppressed. “Seventeen years after the dawn of democracy, the people of Malepelepe have yet to taste most of the fruits of democracy in the form of development,” reads the story, which quotes a resident named Nofundile Dawuse as saying, “Nothing has changed. I still live in poverty. We don’t have water. I do not have electricity. I use candles and paraffin.”
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in numerous international panels. He conducted a fact-finding mission to Senegal and Mali in 2011.