Being uninformed is so last season
20 December 2014 22:35 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The darkness of Africa

  • Ivo Vegter
If press freedom is the light by which democracy finds the path of progress, a new wave of darkness threatens Africa's development.

The economic and political development of the world's most prosperous countries has depended in large part on the ability of its citizens to hold their governments accountable.

They have done so by virtue of easily accessible information relating to political matters and the conduct of their appointed officials. Where corruption ruined the livelihoods of the people, pamphlets, tracts and cartoons have made scandals of them. Where laws threatened liberty or trade, commentators and experts debated them in public journals and newspapers. Where abuse of power entered the hearts of rulers, journalists and editors, armed only with pens, tape recorders and cameras, stood tall in defence of the public's right to know.

In these free, prosperous parts of the world, the very definition of "media" has constantly changed. At no time in history has the notion of who reports the news, who comments on it, and who is entitled to ask penetrating questions of public officials been more expansive than today.

The controversies of centuries past involved libellous allegations by a few wicked pamphleteers and populist newspaper proprietors. The modern media landscape is such that even rank amateurs with scant respect for apostrophes and no inkling of the proper use of the semi-colon routinely brandish press passes. Bloggers today mix it up with even the most exalted paragons of the journalistic profession.

In the developed world, which regards freedom of the media as an absolute prerequisite for the maintenance of liberty and prosperity, no government would dare tangle with the right of free citizens to publish what they will.

Much of the world, however, has yet to attain such levels of freedom and prosperity. It is, therefore with deep concern that one learns of a proposed amendment to Uganda's Press and Journalist Statute, which would require both journalists and the media they work for to be licensed.

The requirements for a licence range from ill-considered to outright dangerous. Among the rules are that formal qualifications are required to practise as a licensed journalist. While superficially well intended, this would exclude even most professional journalists from practising their trade. Another rule would require media houses to show that they have the "technical capacity", in the eyes of government poohbahs, to produce a publication. That one can run an news outlet with no equipment other than an internet café and a keen nose for scandal has not occurred to the legislators.

Most dangerous of all is that the media council – the statutory body that grants and revokes annual licences – can revoke or refuse to issue a licence if it finds reportage to threaten "national security, stability and unity," or if coverage was deemed to be "economic sabotage." Jail awaits those who publish anything without the council's approval.

Such vague notions were used last year to close down several Ugandan radio stations which were accused of whipping up popular discontent against government officials. Among the arguments used to support the banning order was that radio stations are unable to control what callers to a talk show might say.

Tensions have also risen between the government and the media over the latter's reluctance to support the government's ideological positions, as well as over exposés of corruption and even the mere publication of private interests of public officials.

If charges of a hostile media and consequent proposals for media councils or tribunals sound familiar, know that the danger to media freedom exists in your country too.

The implications for the media are simple. If it does not have to fear upstart competition from unlicensed rivals, but it does have to fear violent government crackdowns, the media will merely exercise self-censorship. The fare served up by Uganda's media will consist of soap operas, sport and other such harmless but profitable diversions. That these entertainments happen to keep the suffering poor in a state of docile compliance is a side-effect that, no doubt, the government would have anticipated.

For the public, however, the consequences are much graver. Uganda's proposed press law is a dangerous precedent to set, since untrammelled freedom of public speech is the light by which democracies holds their governments accountable.

Former US president Lyndon Johnson once said: "You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered."

Since governments routinely advocate legislation based on the former, it falls to a diligent and critical media to examine and expose the latter. This is essential not only before legislation is passed, in order to avoid abuses, but also when existing legislation is being abused.

A government's interest in controlling the media extends further, however. Retaining power despite political oppression, failure to deliver, public corruption and continued poverty requires that the people – whether they are able to vote or are restricted to revolution – remain unaware of the abuses of power.

Ultimately, once governments begin to extinguish the light of free expression, the road to tyranny is wide open. The bloody democides of Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin were not aberrations. The violent oppression not only disposed of witnesses to corruption, but were the required political means of achieving socialism's professed economic aims.

When a government can respond to revelations about incompetence or abuse by simply shutting up the media on such vague and subjective grounds as "economic sabotage" or "failing to promote unity", one must conclude that its aims are as undemocratic as they are unjust.

John Bosco Mayiga is national co-ordinator of the Uganda Media Development Foundation, a media training and policy advocacy NGO. He is also vice chairman of a media lobby group that opposed the legislation. He wrote the following in response to an e-mailed enquiry:

"The threat of controlling the media through licensing is a real threat in Africa. Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Niger (let alone Ethiopia and Eritrea) and other countries are proposing similar measures. It means that the perception of media as a function of democracy is lost on the leaders. The move to tightly control the media in Africa through all forms including licensing, is a claw back of the intentions articulated in the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa. With a subdued media, the dream of a democratic Africa becomes only a pipe dream. There is a need to create and syndicate strong lobbies in countries across Africa threatened by such retrogressive legislation to ensure they do not set a precedent that tight control of the media can work for African governments."

I couldn't have put it better.

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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