Democracy is both a process and an end in itself. Only with the complete involvement and support of the international community, national governing bodies, civil society, and individual citizens can the ideal of democracy be realised and enjoyed by all, everywhere.
This year, International Democracy Day focused on the importance of media freedom to democracy, peace, and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals. Press freedom means that a writer, publisher or reporter is free to publish anything they choose without worrying that their work will be censored or that it would put their life at risk. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many nations have made the freedom of the press a legal requirement.
Reports across the globe, even in Africa, give a different story. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in Guinea, seven journalists have been harassed or attacked by soldiers, police, or protesters since July 28, 2022. The most recent victim was a reporter questioned twice by soldiers while covering a peaceful demonstration in the capital, Conakry, on August 17. Fourteen journalists were the targets of a wave of arrests in Somaliland in April 2022, and surreal trumped-up charges were brought against three of them. The media are often targeted. In Kenya, Ian Byron, a Nation newspaper reporter in the southern town of Migori, sustained a machete wound to his left leg when attacked by two masked men on a motorcycle who intercepted him as he was returning home on July 10 after writing a political piece about an MP in northern Kenya.
Africans all share a responsibility to protect the civic space necessary for all individuals to express their opinions openly. The media is a key stakeholder and plays an important role in fostering peaceful discussions on the decisions to further the nation’s development between the government, citizens, political parties, the corporate sector, and other interest groups.
Another critical aspect of press freedom includes social media. According to Global Digital Insights, the number of social media users in the world nearly doubled from 2.3 billion in 2016 to 4.2 billion in 2021. This fact has allowed for greater access to content and more voices, especially with the younger demographic. However, this has brought the media a set of challenges, including the slow decline of legacy media as Africa’s youth now lean more toward digital sources of information to stay updated. Another challenge is the growing exposure of the masses to misinformation and fake news. The digital ecosystem has unleashed a flood of competing content and turned large internet companies into the new gatekeepers, who seem to sit on the fence regarding the regulation of information shared with their audiences. The question remains, Should the democratization of the media be regulated? If so, who should be doing it, and to what extent?
The media, in turn, has a role to utilize its favourable working environment in the continent to share more information about access to essential services like access to clean water, high-quality healthcare, justice, and climate change as well as highlight Africa’s progress toward the realization of the SDGs while holding all responsible parties accountable. One, however, would question if such a shift in the media’s coverage would be effective, especially given that the mainstream media has a history of favouring contentious issues. Would changing the media’s narrative be commercially viable? Who ought to drive the movement to change this narrative in African nations?
Has Africa truly made progress toward bolstering its media democracy? The RSF World Press Freedom Index shows 6 African countries in the top 50 indexes, no difference from last year, though more countries in 2022 rank as high as 16 (Namibia). Africa’s future is bright if a reliable press collaborates with the government, civil society, the commercial sector, and other stakeholders. The consolidation of the continent’s achievements, as well as the achievement of the SDGs, would be greatly aided by continued investments in preserving and protecting freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
Governments, civil society, and also the private sector must act quickly to bolster trustworthy journalism and build a better environment for media viability. At the same time, they have to respect editorial independence and freedom of expression standards. Without this, it’ll not be possible to ensure the supply of free, independent, and pluralistic journalism as a public good.