Author: Noelina Nabwire, October 28 2013 As many African countries, including Kenya, celebrate their golden jubilee, recent trends have put the state of the continent’s democracy on the spotlight. In particular, current media trends in East Africa are worrying, and indeed, a threat to media freedom.
Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi are among the 47 fragile states and economies, used for quantitative analysis in the report, "Fragile States 2013: Resource Flows and Trends in a Shifting World," published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Though Tanzania is not listed, it has joined other countries in the region in proposing new media laws (the Miscellaneous Amendments Act 2013) that would see journalists face severe penalties for professional mistakes and curtail media freedom.
In Rwanda, the President in March 2013, signed new press laws and a Freedom of Information Act, in which the Media Council (previously known for censoring the press) was assigned new responsibilities of training and promoting professionalism in the media. Yet, we are aware that journalists in Rwanda have been jailed for alleged national security offences and criminal libel. For instance, Saidati Mukakibibi and Agnes Uwimana were jailed on allegations of defaming the Rwandan President and “endangering national security” for criticizing the government’s agricultural policy.
In Kenya, on July 24, 2013, Inspector-General of Police summoned journalists from the Standard Group over an investigative story on the Westgate mall terrorist attack in September, claiming that they incited the public against government by “provoking” propaganda.
In Uganda, the government enacted a law that allows the state to shut down a newspaper and jail journalists for articles said to undermine national security. Consequently, it is not surprising that the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2013, describes East Africa as a region of censorship.
The emerging trend is worrying: the media have been put under close state supervision, threatening the media to keep it from performing its watch dog role - exposing the excesses of the executive, legislature and the judiciary. The reasons advanced are that the media are endangering state security and inciting the public against their governments.
Thus, if these countries have been categorized as fragile states, do these trends contribute to state stability or worsen the fragility? That the role of a free media should be embraced, prioritized and supported by governments of these fragile states and all stakeholders in strategies designed to ensure stability cannot be overemphasized. These are states bedeviled by ills and divided under religious, ethnic, and political lines.
The Media Development Indicators: a framework for assessing media development, a tool designed by UNESCO, is one of the initiatives for assessing the overall environment for media development in a country. The media development indicators (MDI) focus on the legal and policy environment, regulatory issues, commercial and technical considerations, the nature of media players in a given country, and even the approach to education and training of media workers.
As the authors note, the MDIs represent an elaboration of UNESCO’s understanding of its core mandate to foster "the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth", "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge" and "the free flow of ideas by word and image", as prescribed by UNESCO’s Constitution. This mandate includes the promotion of the right to freedom of expression, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the MDI, there are five key areas that a country should use to assess the overall environment for media development in a country. First is the existence of a legal, policy and regulatory framework which protects and promotes freedom of expression and information, based on international best practice standards and developed in participation with civil society.
Secondly is plurality and transparency of ownership, where the state actively promotes the development of the media sector in a manner which prevents undue concentration and ensures plurality and transparency of ownership and content across state, private and community media.
Thirdly is that media is promoted as a platform for democratic discourse; the media, within a prevailing climate of self-regulation and respect for the journalistic profession, reflects and represents the diversity of views and interests in society, including those of marginalized groups.
Another key factor is the professional training and supporting institutions. Media workers should have access to professional training and development, both vocational and academic, at all stages of their career, and the media sector as a whole should be monitored and supported by professional associations and civil society organizations.
Last but not least is infrastructural capacity, where the media sector is characterized by high or rising levels of public access, including among marginalized groups, and, by efficient use of technology, to gather and distribute news and information appropriate to the local context.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in East Africa, and Kenya in particular, as we celebrate 50 years of independence. The Media, the fourth estate, a key entity in realizing stability and democratic governance and the rule of law, is under threat. It is no time for celebration for the media.
Noelina Nabwire is a Communications, Media and Knowledge Management Specialist, currently based in Kenya, and works in countries in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa.
 UN General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III), 10 December 1948.
 UN General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI), 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976.
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