Global Conference for Media Freedom: Summary of regional consultations in anglophone sub-Saharan Africa
- On October 7, 2020, Canada hosted virtual regional consultations for the second Global Conference for Media Freedom. The consultations included 12 journalists, academics and civil society participants from anglophone sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Discussions took place under Chatham House rules.
- Most conversation relating to COVID-19 and media freedom focused on government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions either intentionally or unintentionally restricting media freedom, on poor access to timely, accurate COVID-19 data from governments and on the financial consequences of the pandemic on media organizations.
- Other significant topics raised included legal restrictions on journalists and the media, state ownership or control of the media and the harassment and trolling of women journalists. Several participants noted the continued dominance of radio and print media in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There was also a sense that the proliferation of falsehoods on social media was being ignored by tech giants (for example, Facebook and X (Twitter)) that have only limited fact-checking capabilities in the region.
COVID-19 and media freedom
Government restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 were a primary concern for participants, especially the ways COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to undermine journalists’ work. Several participants noted that media were considered essential workers in their countries but were still often detained, threatened with arrest or otherwise hampered when they tried to move around after curfew or outside established isolation zones.
Several participants also noted the difficulties in getting timely access to accurate data on infections, death rates and government policies. In some cases, they were referred to access-to-information processes that take months.
There was also concern that COVID-19 has altered the media landscape through reduced ad buys for newspaper publications, affecting financial stability for media unable to switch to digital dissemination. Participants noted that the new media landscape favoured state-owned media at the expense of smaller, opposition-aligned or independent media outlets. In some cities, major broadsheets have stopped publishing because of COVID-19-related declines in revenue.
Artificial intelligence, digital technology and media freedom
While not a major point of discussion, participants raised the concern that states could use artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and remove social media content they did not agree with and, in some cases, to prosecute the persons responsible for posting it. Participants noted that AI has made this process much more efficient, ruthless and rapid.
State restrictions on the media
Participants noted that state restrictions on the media remain a persistent concern in the region. This has manifested in several ways.
Among the most egregious examples of state restrictions is governments’ continuing use of defamation laws as pretexts to arrest, detain and intimidate journalists who publish anything unflattering to the regimes, including and especially investigative journalism.
State control of the media also remains prevalent through either direct ownership or indirect financial incentives and selective access to government information. One participant noted that “it’s not about information anymore: media ownership is about influence.”
Opaque legal regimes are also used to threaten journalists and media organizations with legal grey areas; for example, a government might refuse to approve an organization’s permits, legal status or incorporation papers but not ban it outright. This legal precarity means the state can crack down for official reasons any time it wishes.
Shrinking space for smaller, opposition or independent media
COVID-19 has exacerbated an existing trend: the crowding-out and increasing precariousness of smaller, opposition and independent media outlets. This trend existed because of the pivot to digital and increasing state control of the media, which has meant more financial and legal pressures on non-state media.
Traditional media versus digital media
Several participants expressed concern that many parts of SSA are still without Internet access or even stable electricity; in these areas, newspapers and radio are often the main sources of information. Social media and other online sources of information are still, largely, available only to urban dwellers.
Some participants said that that Internet rights are fundamental rights that cannot be “turned off” by a state to suppress information or punish opposition regions. Dissemination of information digitally can be a huge step forward but can also be much more easily prevented by the state.
Tech giants ignoring fake information in sub-Saharan Africa
There was some discussion about Facebook, X (Twitter) and other social media networks taking steps to filter out or block fake information or harmful content in the Western world. In contrast, there was a widespread feeling that this was not the case in SSA and that this unequal global attention to fact-checking was a form of “digital colonialism.”
Disproportionate impact on women in the media
A number of participants commented on the high level of abuse faced by women in the media, including journalists. This included online trolling, hateful comments and online threats of a quantity and severity much higher than that faced by men in the media in SSA.
Participants recommended actions to increase media freedom in the sub-Saharan African region:
- Countries such as Canada should be more actively involved in funding organizations relating to media freedom
- The international community should be more vocal on media freedom issues, specifically those relating to state harassment of the media and the harassment of women journalists.
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