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It’s safer to be a journalist in South Africa than the US—but Africa’s press is far from free

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Across Africa, incidents of press rights being infringed are common and as a result, much of the continent remains unsafe for journalists, says a new report.

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index which tracks the safety, independence and freedom of journalists and media across 180 countries shows that little progress has been made on the continent with regard to keeping journalists safer. Eritrea props up the listjust as it did in 2015. Namibia, the continent’s highest ranked nation remained unchanged from its 17th position while Ghana, the continent’s second highest nation, ranked 26thfour places lower than 2015.

While continental heavyweights like South Africa (39th) and Ghana (26th) as well as smaller countries like Cape Verde (32nd) and Namibia (17th) rank ahead of the United States (41st) on the 2016 index, it paints a grim picture for the rest of the continent. Collectively, out of the top 50 countries, only seven are African.

Top 10 ranked African countries
Country Ranking
Namibia 17
Ghana 26
Cape Verde 32
South Africa 39
Burkina Faso 42
Botswana 43
Mauritania 48
Comoros 50
Niger 52
Madagascar 56

Often as a result of strict state control on media, press freedom in states like Egypt remains highly restrictive. Perhaps most emblematic of this was Egypt’s jailing of Al Jazeera journalists in 2015 for threatening “national security”. Incidents and rhetoric like this are not restricted to Egypt. Last month, Joseph Abandi, a local journalist in South Sudan, was found dumped in a graveyard “beaten and bearing marks of torture” after being arrested by state authorities. Abandi’s arrest came months after Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, threatened to kill journalists for reporting “against the country.

A majority of the lowest ranked African countries are either led by autocrats or have recently been engaged in local civil unrest. Usually averse to criticism, leaders in these nations have remained largely intolerant of journalists who they often see as opposition-sponsored dissenting voices.

Rwanda, which is often held up as one of Africa’s most progressive countries in terms of recent development strides, is far down the Press Index at No.161. A recent controversial book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by an American journalist, offers a sobering view of the end of independent journalism in Rwanda, though some local journalists have pushed back at the book’s claims.

Worst 10 ranked African countries
Country Ranking
Eritrea 180
Sudan 174
Djibouti 172
Equatorial Guinea 168
Somalia 167
Libya 164
Rwanda 161
Egypt 159
Burundi 156
Swaziland 153

But the threat to media is not always physical. Elections on the continent are often synonymous with a total shutdown of telecoms and internet services as incumbent governments cite the need to maintain “national security” whereas limiting critical media infrastructure and access to information is often seen as a pretext to censoring media monitoring of electoral malpracticeand possibly violencein those states. Regionally, Africa lags behind only Asia in the number of countries that dominate the bottom quarter of countries on the World Press Freedom Index.

With the guarantee of press freedom still a long-shot across the continent, Africans are increasingly turning to social media as an outlet but even this escape is not entirely government-proof. In Nigeria, lawmakers are exploring ways to regulate the country’s social media platforms through a Frivolous Petitions bill which proposes jail time and fines as high as $20,000 for “spreading falsehood”.

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