Opinionista Julie Reid 30 April 2013

Why can’t African democracies just grow up?

Last week the South African Parliament passed the Protection of State Information Bill, more popularly called the Secrecy Bill, amid much protest and criticism, and disappointingly only two days before Freedom Day. This week we are heading toward World Press Freedom Day, on Friday 3 May, providing opportunity to reflect on a more global, or at least continental, view of the apparent dire straits of the status of freedom of expression in our country. Seeing the bird’s-eye-view of the sub-Saharan African region puts South Africa’s current dilemmas into better context, but it certainly isn’t a pretty picture.

Recently I performed a mini-research study which assessed the state of the independence of the media in the sub-Saharan African region. My dutiful husband asked me, “But why is it so important to have a free and independent media? Explain it to me.” He wasn’t being cynical or sarcastic, and although a simple question, it is a good one.

The answer lies in the old indicator-metaphor. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to drive around the Stellenbosch or Robertson wine regions, you may have noticed something particular within the manicured landscapes: the rose bushes that are planted at the edge of the vineyards. They are not necessarily there for aesthetic reasons: I’m told that roses and vines are susceptible to many of the same ailments, particularly a fungal disease called mildew. The roses are more sensitive than the vines, and so if the roses start getting sick it’s an indicator that bad things may soon to follow for the precious vines.

Here’s another: before electronic gas detectors where used to monitor levels of dangerous fumes like methane or carbon monoxide in underground mines, miners would occasionally carry a canary bird in a small cage underground with them. Apparently canaries can’t handle these gases at all. If the canary suddenly kicked the bucket, it was a sure sign that dangerous gases were about, and the miners could hot-foot it to the exits before things got too hairy. The canary-in-the-coal-mine has since been used in allusion to something that acts as an indicator for imminent disaster, immortalised in the Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong, set during World War I, where the tunnellers’ superstitious concern for their little bird did nothing to save them from the horrific battle to follow.

The freedom of the press, and a truly independent media, is the canary in the coal mine. They are the indicator plants of democracies. A common understanding in media theory has us believing that when the freedom of the press is put under any kind of pressure, especially from governments, then it is a sure indication that the health of the democracy in question is in distress. Put simply, a concern for press freedom and freedom of expression extends to far broader concerns for civil liberties and the tolerance exercised by powerful elites for democratic spaces of public discourse, in which robust criticism for the centres of power can be fostered. A rule of thumb is that in so-called ‘mature democracies’ the independent media are free to operate without facing retribution from the state, and freedom of expression, whether practiced by the press or citizens, is unhindered by regulatory, legislative or other means such as intimidation or harassment by organs of state such as the police.

So what are the canaries of the sub-Saharan African region telling us? Some of these poor avian creatures are in serious need of a veterinarian. Others are long since dead. Provisions which protect and guarantee freedom of expression are included in the constitutions of all 46 African states within sub-Saharan Africa. That is great. But research reports indicate that these provisions are nullified by conflicting laws or penal codes, negated due to the abuse of the legal process or blatantly ignored to varying degrees in all 46 of those countries. In many African states this constitutionally ‘protected’ freedom of expression means nothing when journalists who have criticised the political elite are harassed, imprisoned and tortured. During the period 2006-2011 the highest number of journalists killed in Africa in any given year was 12. But in 2012 that number spiked suddenly to 21 journalists whose murders appear to have been related to their work. But these examples are extreme. African governments who are intolerant to a critical media still tend more often to rely on regulatory measures, passing draconian laws, disallowing the independence of the public broadcaster, setting up Big-Brother type monitoring and ‘accountability’ bodies and generally dressing the accessibility of government information in disheartening swathes of red-tape. (Any of that sound familiar?). There is only one African country which currently registers few to no restrictions to the independent press in a variety of recent research reports: Ghana. One country, out of 46.

I was not particularly surprised to discover all the abovementioned negative indicators in the research reports that I assessed. What did surprise me were the findings of one research study, released in January this year by two academics, Peter VonDoepp and Daniel Young, who quantitatively assessed the incidents of government harassment of the media in Africa over a period of 15 years. What fascinated me most was that their study revealed that, contrary to the ‘canary-in-the-coal-mine theory’, a greater backdrop of democracy in African countries actually leads to a higher incidence of government harassment of the independent media. Having always imagined that the more ‘mature’ a democracy the more robust the freedom of the press, I was a little floored by this revelation, so decided to do some checks myself. Using an entirely different data-set to VonDoepp and Young, and drawing on different international indices of press freedom and democracy ratings I found, to my fascination, that my figures corroborated theirs.

Having established that more democratic African environments lead to more headaches for the free press, the question then becomes, WHY? VonDoepp and Young hypothesise quite simply that more democratic environments are associated with an increased number of opportunities for media outlets to criticise the government, and thus more opportunities for the government to harass the media. It’s a sensible speculation, yet I don’t agree.

If we accept unquestionably that the African continent has blown the ‘canary-in-the-coal-mine’ understanding of the relationship between the free press and democracy entirely out of the water, then this could all signal fairly positive things for Africa. We could look at it as a ‘glass-half-full’ scenario: since high levels of media harassment by governments (in Africa) indicate an increased environment of democracy, then democracy in Africa must be on the rise! But I believe that this view is misguided and naive for two reasons. First, because of a deeply entrenched personal principle that systematic (although sometimes cloaked as arbitrary) restrictions on the fundamental basic human right of freedom of expression, are universally wrong. This is wrong all over the world and it is wrong in Africa. I think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa agree with my personal view. Second, I disagree because if we are to apply the VonDoepp and Young hypothesis, then we need ask ourselves about the nature of African democracies and why it is that we expect less, in theory, from governments in Africa than democratic governments elsewhere. Why, in Africa, should we accept that what is near-universally considered as a negative indicator for a democracy, as something positive? I think that we should not.

So, if we are not ready to abandon the indicator plant or canary-bird view, the picture of Africa again becomes more grim. A more plausible explanation is that Africa currently reiterates the oft-repeated nature of human power relations. Africa presently hosts a handful of authoritarian regimes (examples are Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea and Djibouti). It’s true that incidents of state harassment of the media in these countries are currently rare – but these countries have been void of any semblance of a democratic system of governance for a long time. Journalists, editors and citizens in these countries learnt long ago that to speak up will result in harassment, intimidation, beatings, imprisonment, torture and so on. These people have long learnt the personal value of self-censorship. A ‘well-behaved’ media and citizenry necessitate state harassment in generally few instances. But it takes something to teach an entire people to behave in this way. What we should be looking at is – how did these African governments accomplish this extent of self-censorship amongst their people?

In ‘middle-road’ democracies (sometimes called emerging democracies) a level of contestation still exists between the centres of political power, the press and the people. As democracies mature and grow up in a sense, governments learn to practice restraint in the face of criticism, learning to respond to it instead of over-reacting to it, and resultantly press freedom tends to increase. But where governments cannot learn this restraint, and criticism is tolerated little, socio-political environments which were once mostly democratic in nature can enter a process of backsliding. My hypothesis, then, is this: democracies in Africa, where they exist, reveal a higher incidence of media harassment by the state because democracy on the continent is currently caught in a process of decline. The freedom of the press is still the canary-in-the-coal-mine.

The danger is that in a postcolonial era, a popular assumption pervades that democracy in Africa is on the rise, despite its slow ascension and good deal of growing pains. The origins of this myth of Africa were planted about 60 years ago, nurtured throughout the independence-gaining process, stumbled a little during the Africa-Big-Man phase, but recovering afterward and this narrative has persisted ever since to the degree where it has become almost a priori knowledge, repeated endlessly in African political discourse. But we should not allow this myth to lead us to ignore that the African canary is choking – that democracy, where it exists on the continent, may be backsliding and not rising at all.

To see South Africa in a continental context means to acknowledge three things. First, we are graciously still doing better than some of our less fortunate neighbours. Sections of our media are still free to operate with a significant degree of editorial independence, our journalists have not yet faced arrests in overwhelming numbers and our printed press still churns out a significant number of exposes of state corruption, mismanagement and underperformance – a good indicator of their freedom to do so. But second, we have to acknowledge the worrying indicators which have reared their heads in the past few years, which are only too similar to too many other African countries where the freedom of the press is now severely limited. These include the potential of an accountability mechanism for the press which is answerable to parliament (the Media Appeals Tribunal) and legislation which makes the access to government information more cumbersome, sometimes impossible and which criminalises the possession of certain information (the Secrecy Bill). And there are other worrying indicators, such as the increased abuse of the National Key Points Act to prevent access to information which is in the public interest, the arrest of and legal action taken against some prominent journalists, and the increasing tendency of the police to over-react in the face of citizen’s protests. All indicators of a decreasing tolerance for freely expressed voices of descent – all of which have been seen north of our borders before.

And third, another myth: the myth of the South African Rainbow Nation. In South Africa we have had, since 1994, a proud boast that we are the beacon of democracy on the continent. I can tell you that in my experience of travelling and talking with other Africans, many feel that this perspective is somewhat arrogant and misguided. Recently a Ghanaian asked me, in the company of two Nigerians: “Why is the ANC such a flop? We all had such high hopes for South Africa in 1994, but now it’s just a big disappointment.” I didn’t know what to say. But if we wish to continue to boast about being the beacon of African democracy, we must do more to prevent ourselves from following the same backward slide as other African states have done. DM

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