Policy Brief 17: African media organisations and journalists under fire

The role of independent, free and fair African media institutions is vital in providing information, fostering critical engagement and raising awareness on pertinent issues affecting the everyday lives of people. It also shines a spotlight on holding those in power accountable and adding to a discourse around matters of national and regional interest. However independent media institutions and journalists are increasingly under threat and victimisation in doing their work. This policy brief explores the challenges faced by independent media on the continent and explores way to improve independent reporting and coverage in Africa.


Independent media in Africa, as institutions, pre and post-independence from colonialism, have done more to push for freedom, expose corruption and promote peace and democracy. Yet across the continent, independent media are under attack from African governments and leaders, whether independence movements and leaders turned governments and presidents.

Opposition movements and parties that got into government after opposing sitting autocratic African independence movements and leaders are also suppressing the media and journalists.

So too are those that came to power after autocratic ones that were toppled in popular uprisings, for example, the “Arab Spring” uprisings, are turning on independent media and journalists. Autocratic, corrupt and ineffective leaders and governments who are under pressure from citizens to become accountable or to step down are increasingly attacking independent media organisations and journalists.

Non-government groups whether fundamentalist religious groups or militia in Africa are likewise increasingly killing, attacking and suppressing journalists on the continent. In some cases, African governments and leaders do not directly attack independent media organisations and journalists, but their associates do so – and they often either encourage them to do so or turn a blind eye to such attacks. Companies, particularly foreign companies in Africa, are increasingly attacking independent media and journalists for their critical reporting, exposure of corruption and environmental destruction.

Even African countries where democracy, development and tolerance of difference are relatively of better quality, such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Botswana, have seen media freedom declining.

African autocratic leaders and governments have stayed in power because they controlled the media

Before African independence, many colonial governments suppressed, banned and even killed independent media and journalists when they reported on official wrongdoing, educated citizens about their rights and called for freedom of oppressed peoples.

The irony is that after independence, former independence movements and leaders turned governments and presidents suppressed the very same independent media and journalists with similar gusto when they reported on the excesses of these new post-independence governments and leaders.

Immediately after independence, many African countries nationalised existing colonial settler or government owned media. These new African governments demanded from independent media and journalists with whom they fought side by side against colonialism, to uncritically support the new governments, because they were inexperienced, faced major challenges and destabilisation by former colonial powers and their local proxies.

If they did not, they were closed down and journalists carted off to prison, ironically often under colonial-era criminal, libel and insult laws. In the post-independence era, very few independent media and journalists were allowed. Those that were, were often starved of government advertising, access to government officials and their operations restricted. Interestingly, almost every mass citizen movements to topple autocratic African governments and leaders were accompanied by a rise in independent media and journalism.

However, once in power, almost all African independence movements turned governments have plundered their countries’ resources, lived the same bling lifestyles as the former colonial elite and governed as autocratically; while attacking those who exposed them, claiming they were in the pay of former colonial powers.

Many dictatorial Africans governments and leaders have remained in power because they controlled most of the media through which they only allowed sunshine journalism. Through these means, it presented the government as being benevolent, censored corruption, and edited views from the opposition and critics, with delivery failures, portrayed as being orchestrated by hostile foreign powers and their local stooges. The majority of the media whether television, radio or newspapers, in many African countries, are still state-owned.

Ordinary citizens, without having alternative information, are unaware of how governments strip resources, and see opposition and critics as fringe, being sympathetic for a government they believe are doing its best, but for the machinations of foreign powers and their local lackeys.

Often once there is a rise of alternative sources of information whether through credible independent media and journalists, civil society or opposition groups, when citizens began to grasp how they are being conned by their leaders and governments, it often sparks the beginning of mass mobilisation and protests against them.

How the media have boosted democracy in Africa

Independent media and journalists have successfully pushed for democratic and social change, and in most cases helped bring about the end of colonialism. The media in many cases were also instrumental in bringing about the end of the rule of African post-independence governments and leaders who turned rogue, corrupt and autocratic.

It played key roles in toppling African dictators who lead through personal-rule, and to force out military-led regimes. More recently the African independent media has helped push for democratisation, whether in the North African uprisings or the more recent citizen-led drive for democratisation in Francophone African countries, such as in Senegal.

African independent media and journalists have done more to educate and enlighten Africans about the world, their own countries and societies, raise their political consciousness and engender common national identities beyond narrow ethnic identities. They have equally worked to expand Africa’s democratic space for people to access information, express their views, debate policies and hold governments and leaders accountable.

The independent media have also advanced the acceptance of differences, whether cultural, ethnic, regional and political. Likewise, independent media have helped inculcate the beginnings of a democratic culture and the acceptance of the democratic ethic in the daily lives of African citizens. It has encouraged the overturning of preconceived prejudices, increasing acceptance for ethnic, gender and social equality and helped promote social justice for the poor.

In many cases, the media has helped build more inclusive, more democratic and diverse national identities increasing public accountability, transparency and a respect for the rule of law.

African countries with relatively independent media have since the end of independence from colonialism over the long-term done better consistently in terms of quality democracy, development and social, ethnical and sexual equality, than their more oppressive peers (Gumede 2009).

African media and journalists are being increasingly targeted

Amnesty International said the intimidation of journalists sent a “frightening and intimidating” message, which has often caused journalists to censor themselves. “Across the region, journalists have been targeted simply for exposing the truth”, said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Southern Africa regional director.

In March this year, Uganda experienced a rare victory for the media, when Joram Mwesigye, a police officer, was found guilty of assaulting journalist Andrew Lwanga who was covering a protest march against unemployment in Kampala in January 2015.

Amnesty International’s Abdullahi Halakhe said, “Press freedom has become increasingly restricted in Uganda with numerous attacks on media outlets seen as critical of the government in the past year” (2017).

Ugandan academic Stella Nyanzi was released on bail this month (May 2017) after 33 days in jail under charges of violating the Computer Misuse Act, for allegedly using “indecent” language against Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, on 7 April 2017. She had criticised Museveni on her Facebook page, and now faces collectively 4 years in jail.

Many African countries have retained colonial-era laws that criminalise media exposure of government corruption and wrongdoing. Some African countries have in recent years introduced new laws to suppress critical reporting of government.

African governments and leaders have stepped up efforts to starve independent media institutions from getting government advertising, information and access. In many instances, they have also tried to block foreign funding, support and resources for independent media and journalists. Often, they have attempted to harass independent media institutions and journalists to reveal their sources and expose whistleblowers.

Eritrea, where President Issayas Afeworki has ruled since 1993, remains one of the most tightly controlled societies in Africa, where independent media, journalists and the distribution of information from inside the country to the outside is brutally quashed.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has closed down all independent media in the country following the attempted coup in May 2015, killed dozens of journalists and forced more than 100 journalists to flee into exile because of threats against their lives by the government and supporting militia. The Rwandan media and journalists have faced regular government censorships, harassment and self-censorship.

Last year, Tanzanian President Magufuli introduced the Media Services Act of 2016 which criminalises the practice of journalism without a government permit. It replaced the previous self-regulation media authority with a government one having wide discretionary powers to shut down the media and jail journalists.

Some governments introduced laws suppressing media institutions under the cover of combating “terrorism”, protecting the “security” of the state or preventing “conflict”. Ethiopia in 2009 introduced an anti-terrorism law which saw journalists being prosecuted by politically motivated prosecutions. The government has blocked the establishment of independent media institutions.

In 2016, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and National Coordination, Joseph Nkaissery, warned that circulated images of Kenyan army casualties in Somalia were akin to supporting Al-Shabaab. Kenyan blogger Edwin Reuben Illah and journalist Yassin Juma were separately arrested last year for posting images of Kenyan army casualties in Somalia.

The Security Law (Amendment) Act (2014), adopted in 2015, which prescribed that journalists seek permission from the police before publishing reports on terrorism, and which was fiercely opposed by local media, was declared unconstitutional by the country’s High Court. Another proposed law, the Powers and Privileges Bill (2014) looks to introduce the crime of defaming Parliament for publishing what would be deemed “false or scandalous information against Parliament, its committees and proceedings”.

Kenya’s parliament has recently also proposed that cameramen and photographers must seek permission to film or photograph any member of parliament doing his or her work. Kenyan journalist Kipkurui Tonui wrote last year (2016) that “the media and journalists are now the (Kenyan) state’s biggest threat. Journalists are facing multi-faceted threats from intimidation, witch-hunts, denial of employment, confiscation of work tools, physical attacks and assault, kidnapping for ransom and outright killing”.

The media in African countries experiencing civil war, tensions and conflict are specially targeted by governments and non-government groups alike. South Sudan which has been plunged into a civil war since 2013; and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are particularly deadly for journalists.

 Media freedom in more tolerant African countries has also declined

Even African countries where democracy, development and tolerance of difference are of relatively better quality, such as Seychelles, Mauritius and Botswana, have seen media freedom having declined.

The governing Botswana Democratic Party introduced the Media Practitioners Act in 2008, to regulate media, which the implementation of is still fiercely opposed by local media and civil society. For the past 3 years, Botswana has dropped yearly on all the global media freedom surveys (Reporters without Borders 2016; World Press Index 2016). The 2016 World Press Freedom Index lamented the fact that the government exercised such a stronghold on the independent media through its threat of withdrawing state advertising to these media organisations not toeing the line (RWB 2016).

“The financial weakness of many media outlets makes them susceptible to political and financial influence that undermines their independence”, according to the World Press Index (RWB 2016). The government in 2015 withdrew advertising in private media, claiming cost cutting. The Botswana government has cracked down on independent journalists, sued many for defamation and cut off access to government officials and information (CPJ 2014). For example, Outsa Mokone, the editor of the Sunday Standard and Edgar Tsimane, a reporter at the paper, faced prosecution based on sedition laws from the colonial-era (originally promulgated in 1661 in Great Britain) over an article Tsimane wrote (CPJ 2014).

Media freedom in the Seychelles, one of the better governed African countries, was in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, being classified as “problematic”. The Index warned about the rising practice of self-censorship by the media as they fear losing government advertising. “As the government seeks above all to protect the country’s image as a tourist paradise, many sensitive subjects are off limits”, the report (2016) stated.

In 2011, Mauritius for the first time jailed a journalist. The Supreme Court sentenced Dharmanand Dooharika, editor of Samedi Plus to 3 months in jail following his coverage of a fraud case, where he quoted a businessman who accused the Supreme Court of being biased. The Committee to Protect Journalists (2011) labelled Dooharika’s prosecution as “not about the administration of justice but about shielding the Supreme Court from criticism”.

Last year an editor was banned from the National Assembly’s press gallery because of a critical opinion piece she wrote to which the Speaker took offence. Mauritius lacks a Freedom of Information Act for journalists and media organisations to access information.

South Africa may have the strongest constitution on the continent providing for freedom of the media and legislation such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), however, the country has year after year dropped down the press freedom rankings. Freedom House (2015) ranked South Africa’s media freedom as “partly free”. Namibia, Ghana and Cape Verde remain exceptions on the continent where there is consistently relative media freedom (RWB 2016).

Non-state groups are increasingly terrorising African media organisations and journalists

Non-state groups in Africa are increasingly killing, attacking and suppressing journalists on the continent. Al-Shabaab in Somalia have assassinated a number of independent journalists and shut down many media outlets. In 2012, Islamist group, Boko Haram bombed the Abuja and Kaduna offices of Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper, for the paper’s critical reporting of its activities.

The World Press Freedom Index reported there is a “deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom” and “climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

Foreign businesses have also increasingly attacked African independent journalists and media institutions for exposing their collusion with autocratic governments, destruction of the livelihood of locals and the environment and siphoning money clandestinely out of African countries.

Last month, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression reported that journalists in Tanzania were facing prosecution for reporting on poor conditions on mines operated by Acacia Mining, a Barrick Gold majority-owned subsidiary.

How African media have undermined peace, development and ethnic inclusiveness

Of course, there have been occasions in Africa where the media have incited ethnic violence, undermined national cohesion and freedom of expression, for example in Rwanda in the early 1990s and Kenya in the late 2000s. In the early 1990s Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his ruling National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND), dominated by those from the majority Hutus, after losing popularity after two decades of misrule, used the media to first exaggerate differences between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. Such differences were stoked by former colonial power Belgium as part of a divide-and-rule colonial oppression.

Habyarimana built on these colonial fostered fault lines through propaganda in newspapers and radio stations to create an “ethnic” enemy out of Tutsis by portraying them as the cause of all the country’s problems and of being behind the opposition group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Following the December 2007 elections in Kenya, when it emerged that President Mwai Kibaki was re-elected, local radio stations in many rural areas encouraged ethnic division and violence. The Kenyan Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence reported that vernacular radio stations incited violence along ethnic, identity and partisan lines. However, some Kenyan community media in both urban informal settlements and rural areas did call for inclusiveness, unity and calm.

During the apartheid-era in South Africa, the mainly white media – both state and private-owned – often portrayed blacks as inferior, according to the official ideology of apartheid. Opponents of apartheid were portrayed in the media as “terrorists”, “communists” and “anti-Christian”, who were pushing for regime change; and ordinary black South Africans portrayed as satisfied with apartheid, that apartheid was good for blacks, were  “developing” blacks and that blacks supposedly had the same “opportunities” as whites.

Similarly, in most African countries during the colonial period, most of the colonial media uncritically supported the colonial government, leaders and their policies. They also portrayed Africans as generally happy with their plight under the colonialism, bar a few “agitators”.

Conclusion: African citizens support media freedom

African governments may be suppressing the media, yet African surveys, including one by Afrobarometer, showed that the majority of ordinary Africans support the media’s “watchdog” role, view the independent media as effective in exposing corruption and poor decision-making.

Continental African institutions, such as the African Union, the Pan-African Parliament and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, must intervene to stop African governments and leaders from prosecuting independent media organisations and journalists from reporting the truth. Individual African governments and leaders must censure their peers who suppress the media and journalists.

Western media institutions must partner with independent African media institutions, use their content and report on their suppression, this will help strengthen independent African journalism. There has been a rise in global media organisations based in industrial countries or subsidiaries of them based in Africa specifically focusing on Africa or individual countries. They are often funded by donors. Any media focusing on Africa is of course absolutely necessary. However, industrial country donors supporting African-owned and indigenous media are desperately needed.

Over the last decades, most international donors have declined to directly fund independent media organisations. Yet, it is time that international donors’ development organisations see African independent media as a public good in itself which is at the core of strengthening democracy, boosting development and stability (Gumede 2009). International development organisations, donors and foreign and local private companies must advertise in local African independent newspapers, to counter rogue African governments and leaders attempts to starve such media out of state advertising, in order to cow them.

African media, journalists and civil society must publicise the plight of their colleagues in countries where they are being suppressed. International journalists and civil society must do the same. Industrial countries and emerging power governments and leaders must also intervene on behalf of harassed African media and journalists.

African countries are unlikely to improve the quality of their development, governance and equality of citizenship without independent media and journalists (Gumede 2009).

Selected Bibliography

Afrobarometer (2016) World Press Freedom Day: Strong public support for ‘watchdog’ role backs African news media under attack. Afrobarometer, May 3.


African Freedom of Expression Exchange (2016) Freedom of Expression Online under Attack in Tanzania. AFEX, September 20


Amnesty International (2017) Rise in the intimidation of African journalists. Statement marking World Press Freedom Day, May 4, Johannesburg

Associated Press (2013) Kenya media self-censoring to reduce vote tension. Nairobi, March 7

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (2017) Tanzania: Journalists persecuted for reporting on Acacia and Barrick Gold Mines. April 28, Toronto


Civil Society Constitution Agenda (2017) CiSCA condemn attack on journalists by UPND cadres. April 1, Lusaka

Committee to Protect Journalists (2014) Advertising and Censorship in East Africa’s Press. February


Committee to Protect Journalists (2015) Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone arrested in Botswana. CPJ, Cape Town, September 12


Freedom House (2015) Freedom of the Press Report 2015. Freedom House, New York

Freedom House (2015) Freedom in the World 2015 – Mauritius. Freedom House, New York, August 24.

(http://www.refworld.org/docid/55dc2bdf49.html )

William Gumede (2009) The Media’s Complicity in the Global Financial Crisis. Paper delivered at the “Power and Pluralism” Conference, School of Communication and Design, University of Kalmar, Kalmar, Sweden, March 19 – 20

Abdullahi Halakhe (2017) Amnesty International Statement: Uganda ruling against journalist’s attacker a rare victory for press freedom. Amnesty International, March 10, Kampala


Human Rights Watch (2016) Media freedom under attack in Somalia. October 20, HRW, New York


Human Rights Watch (2013) Ethiopia: Terrorism Law Decimates Media. HRW, May 3, New York


Human Rights Watch (1999) Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. HRW, March

(https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/rwanda/Geno15-8-03.htm) International Freedom Exchange (2011) (https://www.ifex.org/mauritius/2011/10/26/jail_sentence/)

International Freedom Exchange (2011) Journalist sentenced to jail for first time in island-state. IFEX October 2016 (https://www.ifex.org/mauritius/2011/10/26/jail_sentence/)

International Press Institute (2015) Nigerian media seek to cope with Boko Haram threat. IPI, July 2015


Shenaaz Jamal (2017) Media under gun in Africa. The Times, May 4


Heather Murdock (2012) Nigeria: Boko Haram bombs the media. GlobalPost, Abuja, May 3


Peter Noorlander (2013) Rwanda media under attack despite new press laws. The Guardian, March 20


Reporters Without Borders (2017) World Press Freedom Index. RWB, Paris, April 26

Reporters Without Borders (2016) Predators of Press Freedom. RWB, Paris, November 2

Reporters Without Borders (2014) Wave of intimidation of Kigali. RWB, Paris, April 28


Kipkurui Tonui (2016) Draconian laws biggest threat to media freedom. The Standard, May 3, Nairobi.


Zubair Sayed (2016) Media Freedom in Africa Remains under attack. IPS, April 30, Johannesburg



William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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