Picture: 123RF/ WEERAPAT KIATDUMRONG
Picture: 123RF/ WEERAPAT KIATDUMRONG

Good news: an African nation has climbed to the top of the inverted pyramid of press freedom. Bad news: that means Eritrea is now the worst country in the world in this category and North Korea, one of the perennial losers in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual world press freedom index, moves off the foot of the table.

Yes, Eritrea is now the country with the most oppressive government when it comes to media freedom. It’s not a huge shift. Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan generally muck about in the dirty end of the pool.

These three countries are what the DA would refer to as "effective dictatorships", where the media is entirely controlled. Turkmenistan and North Korea can blithely claim they had no Covid cases, and Eritrea — I’m going to quote this bit in full, because it sounds horrifying — can "maintain complete silence about the fate of 11 journalists who were arrested 20 years ago, some of whom have allegedly been held in metal containers in the middle of a desert".

Dark humour aside, some of the index’s biggest gains are African nations, with Sierra Leone up 10 places to 75, after the repeal of a criminal libel law that stifled free speech. Mali rose nine spots to 99 (it has cut down the number of abuses against journalists). Burundi is up 13 places to 147 (it has released from jail four journalists from IWACU, the country’s last independent media outlet, and given them a presidential pardon).

The global picture, though, is bleak. The RSF index shows that journalism is "totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated".

Only 12 of the 180 countries surveyed can claim to offer a favourable environment for journalism.

I’ve had people ask me why I was so incensed last week at the shoddy journalism around the Lwazi Lushaba issue.

This. This is why.

The 2021 Edelman trust barometer shows a disturbing mistrust in journalism globally, with 59% of people believing "journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations".

The same percentage believe "most news organisations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public".

On the trust in media list, which measures how much citizens trust their country’s media, SA sits at joint seventh from the bottom, at a miserable 42%. This is actually up two tiny percentage points from last year.

Trust in business is at 61%, in NGOs at 60%, and in government … well, we’re last on the list, at 27%. (Nigeria scored 24%, but wasn’t included in the global average for some reason.) Incredibly, this is also an increase, of seven percentage points.

The RSF press freedom index data reflects "a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field."

The key question here is, will governments remove or lessen the restrictions when the pandemic is over? Or will they opportunistically cement them into law and practice?

Africa continues to be the most violent continent for journalists to work, and as with dictatorial governments around the world, Covid has been gleefully used as a way to clamp down on press freedom.

"African journalists were hit hard by the coronavirus crisis in 2020, suffering three times as many attacks and arrests from March 15 to May 15 as during the same period the year before," says RSF.

"On the pretext of combating disinformation and hate speech, many countries have adopted new laws in recent years with vague and draconian provisions that can easily be used to gag journalists. Another disturbing phenomenon is the increase in online attacks, often by trolls close to or directly linked to the government, that are designed to discredit or intimidate journalists."

According to RSF, violations of press freedom in Africa are rampant. They include "arbitrary censorship, especially on the internet (by means of ad hoc internet cuts in some countries), arrests of journalists on the grounds of combating cybercrime, fake news or terrorism, and acts of violence against media personnel that usually go completely unpunished. Respect for press freedom is still largely dependent on the political and social context. Elections and protests are often accompanied by abuses against journalists."

When governments are emboldened to attack the media, we need citizens to take up the cudgels on freedom’s behalf — which is why SA media houses can’t carelessly betray their trust.

A further reason why it’s so vital that SA media houses preserve and grow the trust between them and their readers is that "the financial weakness of many media outlets makes them susceptible to political and financial influence that undermines their independence".

Let’s remind ourselves of a few of the dodgy moves African governments have pulled recently, and where they rank on the list of 180 countries.

In our neighbour, Zimbabwe (120), investigative reporter Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested after helping to expose the overbilling practices of a medical equipment supply company.

In Egypt (166), the government banned the publication of any pandemic statistics that didn’t come from the health ministry, and arrested anyone who claimed larger figures, officially termed "circulating rumours". The authorities even published WhatsApp numbers so people could report their neighbours.

Tanzania (124), of course, was even more worrying. Before his death, President John Magufuli called the virus a "Western conspiracy", claimed that Tanzania had used the force of prayer to keep Covid away, and imposed an information blackout on the pandemic. His successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has started to reverse this policy, saying it is "not proper to ignore" the coronavirus.

Where is SA on this list, you ask? We’re number 32 of 180, which puts us ahead of countries such as the UK (33), France (34), Italy (41) and the US (44). Against African countries, we’re at a very credible fourth, behind Namibia (24), Cape Verde (27) and Ghana (30).

But the RSF’s short country report about SA is titled "Press Freedom Guaranteed but Fragile", and that pretty much sums up why we need to stay vigilant.

A 2007 Unesco report found that "a free press always has a positive influence, whether it be on poverty and its different aspects (monetary poverty and access to primary commodities, health and education), on governance, or on violence and conflict issues".

But as South Africans, we have a wealth of empirical evidence to draw on. You can probably think of a host of examples, but the easy example right now is state capture. Without a free press, would we ever have known about the extent of state capture, from Ajay to Zuma and all the criminals in between? And, as importantly, would there ever have been an attempt at accountability?

On a slightly tangential note, China has maintained its spot at 177 on the list of 180 countries, and it "continues to take internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda to unprecedented levels".

Our government has recently announced that we’ll be sending public servants to China to be trained on governance by Chinese experts. I’m sure China has a lot to teach us, but let’s hope the training doesn’t include tips on using technology and legislation to crush freedom of the press

That’s something China is particularly good at. The country is the world’s biggest jailer of press freedom defenders, with more than 120 being detained as of the writing of this column. And RSF warns us that "Beijing is trying to export its oppressive model by promoting a ‘new world media order’ under China’s influence".

I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take it as a warning.

We need to stay vigilant and engaged because, along with the other freedoms guaranteed us by the constitution, our precious freedom of the press is a fragile thing.

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