Author: Lilian Kiefer, May 14 2014 -As we reflect on the strides made in celebrating Press Freedom in Southern Africa, it is disheartening to note that there are still number of legal and attitudinal impediments from those in power and government hindering the full enjoyment of the freedom of the press.
Many countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region have seen an increase in the harassment, detention and outright banning of members of the press from undertaking their duties as the fourth estate and watchdog of those entrusted with state power and resources. This has made it difficult for citizens to freely send and receive information.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) believes that only when the press is free and citizens are allowed platforms to receive, send or share information can meaningful development that empowers the marginalised and poor to reduce poverty in their community be attained.
Recent developments in the region have shown that there is resistance to media freedom and diversity.
For example, PSAf notes with concern the continued stifling of media freedom in Swaziland, where Nation Magazine Editor Bheki Makhubu and lawyer Thulani Maseko have been incarcerated for close two months in relation to articles published in the Nation Magazine which were deemed contemptuous. This is quite disappointing considering that in any democratic system, the media ought to be a fourth estate keeping a close eye on the other arms of government namely the judiciary, legislature and the executive.
In Zimbabwe, the main World Press Freedom Day celebrations in the capital Harare were cancelled at the last minute by the police for no apparent reason. We fully agree with the Zimbabwean Minister of Information Prof. Jonathan Moyo that the "cancellation of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day ... is manifestly neither in the public nor national interest not least because it is patently unconstitutional and without any transparent, rational or constructive justification".
In Zambia there has been unannounced and without court sanction blocking of online publications that do not support the ruling party with some journalists suspected to be reporters of the same online publications detained, fired from their jobs or taken to court on charges that the state prosecutors are not even ready to prove in court.
The media landscape in Mozambique also continues to deteriorate. Recently, a journalist from Savana newspaper was arrested while pursuing a story on coal mining in Tete. A number of fellows investigating extractive industries in Mozambique have either been harassed or blocked from carrying out their duties by government officials or connected individuals within the extractive industries. This has in turn instilled fear among community members who mostly cannot openly discuss the challenges caused by the extractive industries for fear of reprisals. Access to information and sources on the extractive industries remains a major challenge for Mozambique journalists.
A newly published PSAf report shows that in Malawi, the limited growth of the community media sector has exacerbated the problem of limited access to platforms for engagement. The country’s rural based majority are usually left out of the development discourse because of limited channels of communication.
Although Botswana is widely viewed as a model African democracy, the country’s media environment is far from being a model for any country. Botswana currently does not have any community radio stations, and the only television station is owned and controlled by the government. According to a 2013 Freedom House Report on Freedom of the Press in Botswana, "access to public information remains a major problem for journalists".
It is also sad to note that countries like Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe still do not have community radio stations. Given that radio is the most widely used medium in the region, the absence of community broadcasting in these countries restricts citizens’ access to information through media of their choice. We therefore call on the governments of all Southern African countries that have not yet opened the airwaves for community broadcasters to do so as a matter of urgency. We also call for the removal of all restrictions to media freedom across the region
The use of intimidation and other archaic tactics to prevent journalists from exercising their moral duty to society is retrogressive to the region’s development efforts and goes against the statutes and protocols agreed at SADC.
PSAf calls on the different arms of state in the SADC region to work together and support the free access and dissemination of information by journalists and citizens.
The development discourse for Southern Africa now focuses more on internally driven processes, thereby positioning the region’s citizens at the forefront of driving their own development. However, given the diverse nature of the region’s peoples, the media presents a reliable platform through which Southern African communities can communicate with each other within and across societies and nations.
The region is still generally fraught with systems that makes it difficult for the media to flourish. Media restrictions in any country in the region have an impact on the flow of information across the entire Southern African Development Community (SADC) and beyond.
In order for the region’s poor and marginalised majority to play a more meaningful role in development, they need to have unlimited access to development information and channels for communicating their ideas and concerns. Sadly, the current situation falls far from that.
PSAf is currently working with different stakeholders across the SADC region to facilitate the creation and strengthening of pluralistic and independent media platforms to foster public participation in regional integration.
Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director, Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf). For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.