Between a rock and a hard place is a metaphor that has been used so often in recent times, to describe the plight of journalists in particular; and human rights defenders in general, in Somalia. Wedged between the impunity of the state and non-state actors, journalism is a perilous occupation in Somalia. Many times, Somali journalists and others in similar environments, have to make life and death decisions. There is a countless toll of those who despite political rhetoric, have paid the ultimate price.
World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every May 3 and which global media observed this past Tuesday, is often an occasion for sober reflection on the achievements and challenges of journalism. In Africa, the picture has become much more complicated, with Somalia representing one extreme; while in between, there is a vast swathe of grey territory in which seemingly progressive democracies are getting away with media repression. In both instances, the outcome is the same — a chilling effect which prevents media from effectively playing their watchdog role.
A major culprit and the preferred path of new-age autocrats is legislation. With the possible exception of South Africa, the majority of African countries have oppressive media laws that serve more to protect the status quo, than advance the right of citizens to impart and receive information through the media of their choice. As Dr Peter Mwesige, a Ugandan media trainer, observed in his address at a public policy debate in Kampala this week, the use of legislative tools to advance political control over the media are becoming prevalent in Uganda. He might as well have said in Africa in general. Equally, even in countries which might not be jailing journalists, a politically hostile posture to independent journalism, has left journalists exposed to physical violence occasioned by the security forces, summary closures or threats of closure of media outlets and criminal prosecutions.
From the perspective of the powers that be, all this leads to the same result. Public debate and engagement is suppressed and as often happens these days — a flight to unregulated citizen journalism through social media platforms, is simply a convenient excuse for yet more controls. With elusive and often difficult to catch citizen journalists, it is professional media platforms that end up as the ultimate victims of any new controls.
The truth is that right even before post-independence Africa, media law was structured to control rather than facilitate the practice of free journalism and public discourse. It might sound a bit hollow that so-called liberation and revolutionary movements that have ascended to power across Africa, should reinforce rather than dismantle this ignoble legacy.
It is both paradoxical and self-defeating. Back in Athenian times, informed citizens were able to question and direct public policy in the right direction.
It gets worse at the level of the individual practitioner. Journalists working in deplorable conditions with poor or no pay, is more the norm than the exception. Journalists living on the edge of survival are vulnerable and erode professionalism.
Free media and democratic governance are symbiotic enablers of each other. To be effective and independent, media needs to shielded from both commercial and political pressures. Before they can be agents of the public interest, the environment in which journalists operate also needs to be improved at both the political and economic levels.