After a decade of unprecedented growth and development, the insistence on positive news remains a significant threat to press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa. By Mohamed Keita
When terrorists stormed Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate mall, they not only damaged Kenya’s image as a safe tourist and business destination but also spoiled the popular narrative of an emerging, hopeful continent.
Out of the tragedy came a call for unity behind leaders and security forces, but as awkward questions about government missteps emerged, Interior Minister Joseph Lenku accused the press of not being patriotic enough. Later on, Police Inspector-General David Kimaiyo threatened to arrest investigative journalists John Allan Namu and Mohammed Ali of KTN Television over a broadcast that raised embarrassing questions about the conduct and coordination of security forces at the time of the attack. “You cannot provoke propaganda and incite Kenyans against the authorities,” Kimaiyo told a press conference, according to news reports. “We must be loyal to the system and the government of the day,” added Criminal Investigation Department Director Ndegwa Muhoro.
Pressuring journalists to shape news coverage in the name of patriotism and unity is not new, least of all in Africa. Yet, after a decade of unprecedented economic growth and infrastructure development on the continent, the stakes are higher than ever. Persistent challenges and inconvenient truths–such as the resilience of the Somali terrorist group which claimed responsibility for Westgate, and the Kenyan authorities’ lack of preparation for such an attack–could dent optimism, give pause to donors and investors, and threaten the standing of those in power. Politicians and other authorities feel a strong incentive to suppress reports of such problems.
“I think the dominant story–about growth, or innovation, or whatever is pleasing at the moment in the corridors of power–comes at the expense of the countless other stories that need to be told,” author Siddhartha Deb told CPJ.
Two years after CPJ explored how media restrictions are justified by invoking the primacy of economic development over democracy and human rights, the insistence on positive news remains a significant threat to press freedom in Africa.
The African Union marked its 50th anniversary in 2013 extolling an “African Renaissance” and celebrating a sense of optimism. The new Africa is “a rising continent, a confident continent, which understands its challenges but also is aware of the opportunities it has,” said Antonio M.A. Pedro, director of the East Africa office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Pedro told CPJ that rich human and natural resources, some of the fastest growing economies in the world, business opportunities, and an improved risk profile make Africa an increasingly attractive area for investment.
Yet, as Guardian correspondent David Smith wrote in October, the popular narrative of “Africa rising” does not take into account that the continent’s economic growth is not trickling down to the daily lives of the majority of Africans. Smith referred to an October report by the independent research group Afrobarometer that suggested that a decade of economic boom had failed to substantially improve poverty levels in most African countries.
Furthermore, the sustainability of Africa’s growth is far from certain. The World Bank’s December 2012 assessment highlighted its vulnerability to any slump in China, the continent’s number one trade partner. A March report by the U.N. Development Program found that despite registering some of the world’s most dramatic improvements in life expectancy, education, and standard of living between 2000 and 2011, sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for the world’s lowest levels of human development. In a 2012 report, the Africa Progress Panel found that widening inequality, endemic corruption, and bad governance crippled the pace of development and maintained the continent’s dependence on aid.
“My perspective is that Africa is still struggling to prosper,” said Thomas Bwire, news editor of Pamoja FM, a community radio station based in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, the largest shantytown in Africa.
Yet some journalists say the motivation to play up Africa’s positive image is based on a noble impulse to counter international news coverage long dominated by wars, coups, famine, ruthless villains, miserable people, and happy animals. “For centuries, the continent has not been able to tell the history of its nations and people through an African perspective,” said Amadou Mahtar Ba, chief executive of the African Media Initiative, a pan-African media development group.
That tension played out publicly ahead of the March 2013 presidential election in Kenya, after CNN reported what many viewers felt was an unbalanced and exaggerated look at the threat of ethnic violence. Angry Twitter users created a hashtag, #someonetellCNN, and aired their grievances about errant or sensationalist global media coverage. (CNN stood by its coverage.) In May, freshly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta criticized international reporting on his country and exhorted local journalists to counter it. “These are the images that we must aggressively seek to banish from the global media space and sphere about Africa,” he said. “Africa is rising and we must communicate this to our people and the world. We rely on you, the media, to correct these [negative] images and propagate the new positive developments in our continent.”
In Nigeria, officials castigate the press for failing to report what the government sees as success stories. In January 2013, at a gathering of professionals in marketing, public relations, advertising, and the media, Sen. Ike Nwachukwu, a former military general and minister of foreign affairs, declared that the Nigerian press should stop embarrassing the nation and instead protect its image, according to news reports. “I am not asking for cover-ups, but publications that impact negatively or ridicule our country and its citizenry should not be made,” Nwachukwu said. This criticism came as the government earmarked US$4.2 million for public relations to promote a message of transformation and development, according to the federal budget.
Tolu Ogunlesi, a freelancer who contributes to the Nigerian business magazine Ventures Africa, rejected the notion that the local press neglects positive developments. “There are a good number of positive stories–of entrepreneurship, of people struggling against all odds to do inspiring things. The truth is that there’s a lot of depressing stuff that happens, so if that seems to dominate the news, then it’s clearly just a case of journalism imitating reality,” he said.
Nigerian authorities use an assortment of direct and indirect legal, financial, and brutal means to suppress scrutinizing press reports on certain topics. Of particular sensitivity in Nigeria are stories about the terrorist group Boko Haram and security policies to combat this threat. In 2013, security forces detained and intimidated journalists of the weekly Al-Mizan over an investigative report on alleged extrajudicial detentions of terrorism suspects.
Reporting on political and corruption scandals also draws official ire. Editors from Leadership newspaper were harassed and sued for forgery in 2013 after publishing what they maintain was a memo by President Goodluck Jonathan that described plans to increase gas prices and to sabotage a merger of opposition parties ahead of the 2015 general elections. The journalists could face up to life in prison, according to CPJ’s review of the Nigerian penal code. The government also banned a documentary film on corruption in the state’s management of oil wealth.
In Ethiopia, the leadership is often credited with fast economic growth, strides in health and education, and bold policies to modernize infrastructure and agriculture and boost hydropower. Yet this misses a wider context, some Ethiopian journalists say. “I cannot deny that there are some improvements in some aspects, but all these are good [only] when we compare them with the former regimes,” Muluken Tesfaw, a reporter with the weekly Ethio-Mihdar, told CPJ. “We cannot compete with our neighbors in many cases.” Muluken pointed to the state’s absolute monopoly of the telecom sector as an example. Ethiopia ranked in the bottom third of the African Development Bank’s Africa Competitiveness Report and scored below the sub-Saharan average in business innovation, financial market development, and technological readiness.
Ordinary Ethiopians face a rising cost of living, joblessness, and a stranglehold on the economy by the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Membership in the party determines access to opportunities, which has led to a sense of hopelessness among the youth, rising prostitution, emigration, and more beggars in the streets, Muluken said. An award-winning journalist who wrote extensive critiques of these policies, Reeyot Alemu, has been imprisoned since 2011 on trumped-up terrorism charges and is serving a five-year sentence. Her Amharic-language newspaper Feteh was banned a few weeks after her arrest.
A March 2013 report by the EPRDF said the media “should work on the burning questions of the public at large in a positive, problem solving, and participatory way … for we are aware of the negative impacts of the international neoliberal media and communication industry.” The international perception of Ethiopia has been distorted by the government’s tight control of information, including the banning of independent newspapers and the imprisonment of prominent journalists.
Among the untold stories are that of small-scale farmers evicted from their land to make way for commercial agribusiness companies. In May, Muluken was detained in northwest Ethiopia for 10 days after he gathered from displaced farmers their allegations of official coercion, abuse, and violence. In November, in the western region of Gambella, local authorities briefly detained international photojournalist Robin Hammond when he attempted to interview farmers on their views of commercial farming in the area, according to news reports and local journalists. The government has consistently denied allegations of abuse and coercion, but the accusations are persistent enough that the World Bank in July ordered its independent Inspection Panel to conduct a full investigation.
Even in South Africa, which is widely seen as having one of the most free presses on the continent, officials castigate the independent press for being too negative. “Every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive,” President Jacob Zuma told journalism students in September 2013 in Cape Town. Zuma called for “patriotic reporting,” as practiced in Mexico, where, he said, journalists did not report on crime because it would tarnish the national image and scare off investors. (In fact, CPJ research shows that journalists in Mexico avoid reporting on crime out of fear for their lives. At least 21 journalists have been killed directly for their work in Mexico in the past decade, and dozens more murdered in unclear circumstances.)
Following an outcry over his remarks, Zuma’s office issued a statement that mainly repeated his claim that negative coverage was fed by commercial pressures. “It is the expectation of the Presidency that these matters are discussed in newsrooms daily to ensure that the business side of the media does not negatively impact on the telling of the South African story,” the statement read. In a meeting with CPJ, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj backed away from defining “the South African story,” but criticized what he called “negative-minded” reports.
Sean Jacobs, a South African-born author, professor at the New School University in New York, and the founder of the influential blog Africa Is a Country, rejects this notion. “People need to stop taking this ‘potential investors’ mumbo jumbo seriously. Governments are accountable to citizens, not investors,” he said. “The idea that ‘potential investors’ will be scared off by accountability journalism exposing corrupt practices is ludicrous,” he added. “Some of the world’s most notoriously corrupt countries are also the most attractive to investors–not that their investment is of much good to ordinary people.”
Under acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the government-run public broadcaster, has repeatedly censored content deemed offensive to Zuma and the ruling African National Congress, according to CPJ research. In an August interview with the weekly Mail & Guardian, Motsoeneng, said, “I believe, from the SABC’s side, 70 percent should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30 percent negative stories.”
For Mzilikazi wa Afrika, chair of the Forum of African Investigative Reporters, the notion that media do not report enough “good” news is baseless. “If you read newspapers in South Africa, there would be a story about government ministers donating houses or opening roads and clinics, even when those houses collapse and those clinics become white elephants or are understaffed–we report about that too.”
Motsoeneng is not alone in wanting to prescribe a formula for news coverage. In September, Yolande Makolo, spokesman for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, criticized Western media in response to a New York Times interview of Kagame that highlighted sharply divided opinions about him. “I am sorry but ‘balance’ hurts Rwandans, and Africans. Even when stories reflect more positives than negatives, the positives don’t carry as much weight overall as the negatives, which chip away at the agency we are working to accumulate. Balance thus erodes our reputation and standing in the global pecking order,” she wrote in a letter published by AllAfrica.
Rwanda’s disciplined leadership has delivered economic success, minimal corruption, clean roads, and safety, but years of suppression of the independent press has allowed the government to impose an unchallenged narrative of success, and Rwanda is frequently cited as a model of ethnic reconciliation. But while the government touts an egalitarian, inclusive society, the reality is much more complicated. For example, ethnic labels are officially banned from public discourse, yet the government refers to the 1994 genocide with an (exclusive) ethnic reference: “the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.” Rwandan journalists risk arrest and criminal prosecution under harsh, overbroad laws against divisionism and genocide denial for contextualizing the country’s achievements with such paradoxes, or giving voice to the social injustices that persist.
“More often than not, the news from or about the continent that the rest of the world sees is obsessed with extreme scenarios–the outlying evils and the outlying good. We don’t get enough nuance, enough non-sensational reporting about Africa,” said Ogunlesi, the Nigerian freelancer with Ventures Africa.
Indeed, throughout Africa, journalists need the assurance that reporting facts, even if they challenge those in power or popular national programs, is not seen as disloyalty–or worse, such as illegal or dangerous to their well-being. Navigating the fine lines that separate journalism from public relations is not easy, but in free societies, such determinations must always be left to journalists.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, executive editor of the Nation Media Group in Nairobi, says every story and every perspective is important. “Yes, there is a need to tell the African story, but I reject the idea that it can only be told by Africans. The African story is a global story, and it is open to everyone who tells it, from their point of view.”
As Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim put it in an October column in Mail & Guardian, “We have to guard against the ‘Africa Rising’ or ‘the hopeful continent’ headlines–just as in the past when it was wrong to dismiss Africa as a ‘basket case’ or a ‘hopeless continent.'” He added, “We need to move decisively away from both Afro-optimistic and Afro-pessimistic headlines towards ‘Afro-realism.'”
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program. He has written about independent journalism and development in sub-Saharan Africa for publications including The New York Times and Africa Review, and has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Radio France Internationale.