By Kwame Karikari
Prof. Olatunji Dare came back home in 1977. I returned to Ghana in 1979. At the time and through the 1980s, our continent was ruled by military regimes and one-party states, with many presidents-for-life. The only places with some semblance of democratic rule were The Gambia, Botswana and newly independent Zimbabwe. As in Nigeria and Ghana, attempts at multiparty liberal democratic constitutional rule were short-lived. The military intervened – usually brutally — before the last votes in democratic elections were counted.
In this political atmosphere, the situation of the mass media across the continent was like, as an American scholar, William Hachten, described it with the title of his book, “Muffled Drums”. In terms of the press, Nigeria, Kenya and apartheid South Africa were the only countries with a multiplicity of private press ownership worth talking about.
Apartheid was a fascist state where censorship, arbitrary arrest and detention and forced exile of journalists were the norm. There were also government controlled state-owned press in Nigeria and Kenya and journalism generally came under the culture of state repression prevailing everywhere else. Freedom was an alien concept for the authoritarian regimes. The worst was exemplified in Nigeria by the murder of Dele Giwa in (1985/86?).
Between 1982 and 1984, I served as Director General of GBC under Rawlings’ second military junta, one of the most brutish dictatorships Ghana has seen since independence. I experienced first-hand the intricacies and dangers of state control of and interference in broadcasting that prevailed all over the continent. It gave me the opportunity to collaborate at some level with Nigerian broadcast managers, Mr. George Bako of the FRCN and Dr. Walter Ofonagoro of the NTA.
Today, we take for granted the multiplicity of radio and TV stations in our countries. The only exceptions to the universal state monopoly of broadcasting in the 1980s were Liberia where an American evangelical missionary station broadcast Bible programmes, The Gambia where a Swedish tourist company broadcast Western popular music from an offshore studio set up on a ship and Africa Number One radio set up by oil companies in Gabon.
In some countries there wasn’t even a daily newspaper yet. TV transmitted in black and white and with technically poor transmission and reception in many countries. In most countries (including Ghana) the government control of TV broadcasting fit the description given to what prevailed in Togo as “the private album of (President) Eyadema and his wife”.
Obviously, this is not the culture of media and journalism that Olatunji and I had been trained in Columbia to serve and to support.
The Media revolution
Out of this convulsive situation, suddenly in a short period between the late 80s and early 90s, the streets of every capital and other cities were flooded with newspapers published by private entities other than the state. It was the first and most visible manifestation of the dawning of democratic change. State monopoly of the press was over. There were now channels for the expression of more and independent voices besides that of the government’s.
The UN, through UNESCO, gave its blessing to the popular demands for freedom of the press and of expression generally. The Windhoek Declaration in May 1991, adopted at the International Conference on The Promotion of Independent and Pluralistic Press in Africa, established the international framework for defining press freedom.
The rise of the freed private press opened the door for independent voices of the citizens. Radio, however, gave the people their voices in public affairs.
Liberalization of the airwaves started with the first private radio in Ouagadougou (set up by Moustapha Thombiano) in 1990. It was in Mali, around the same time and under the democratic government of President Alpha Konare, that the new radio culture got its biggest boost. By 2000 the only country in West Africa where the state maintained monopoly of broadcasting was Guinea. There are now TV stations in nearly every ECOWAS country.
The internet and the digital revolution have not only enhanced the efficacy of mass and other communications technologies; mobile technologies have expanded people’s access to the means of communication and access to information. They have opened up greater possibilities to citizens for open involvement in public affairs discussions, and for popular participation in the political, social and cultural affairs in their communities and countries.
The Constitutions built during the transition all made provisions guaranteeing press freedom. They also made provisions promoting ownership pluralism. However, there was no real attempts at fundamental reforms in the existing legislative statutes on media in any country. Old legislation that criminalize media and speech expressions remain on the books and are invoked here and there now and again.
Initiators of the private media
Who were the people who initiated establishment of the private media? When the atmosphere opened up for private media initiatives, former journalists, including many former employees of state media houses, were the first to set up papers. Political parties and individual politicians joined the euphoria. When the airwaves opened up, some of the newspaper publishers – whether as independent owners or as individual politician or party publishers – ventured into radio, and soon Television. Radio and TV, however, attracted the interest of independent private business people more than did the print.
State response to media freedom
The new wave of private media started off by crossing boundaries and breaching taboos raised over the decades by authoritarian states. Nothing was out of bounds, and there was no reverence for political authority. Ferreting for scandal and malfeasance in public office was the mission the private media arrogated themselves. Quite often too, inexperience, lack of professional training, overzealousness and sometimes plain political mischief took the better of the journalists working on these media.
Overall, however, the media became a thorn in the flesh of officialdom, and proved to be very effective watchdogs of the rule of law and of accountability.
In countries like Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali and Senegal, the media operated in relatively free and tolerant environments. The state of media freedom in the other countries in the period between the 1990s to the middle of the 2000s was characterized by varying scales of harsh repression of media.
The violent attacks on media freedoms were highlighted by murders of editors and other journalists in circumstances implicating functionaries or agents of the state. The murder of Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso in 2000 triggered a protest movement demanding justice that lasted for nearly a decade. The Gambia came to represent the worst case of mass scale repression of media rights and journalists.
The government of President Yahya Jammeh has driven numerous journalists into exile; thrown plenty into prison without charge or trial; caused the “disappearance” of a journalist; and has been implicated in the murder of a well-known editor, Deyda Heidara.
The civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire added more to the death toll of journalists fallen in their line of duty. The Liberia war claimed the lives of 15 journalists, and 16 in Sierra Leone. Elsewhere in Africa, Algeria recorded the highest toll of 55 journalists killed in that country’s civil war.
In summary, the opening up of the space for media freedom elicited a vicious spate of violent repression of media that had not been seen before in the region. The terrible reality is that it was an Africa-wide problem. It was also an indication that the political class emerging with the onset of liberal constitutional democracy was not yet accustomed to the basic ethos of democratic culture, namely tolerance of contrary ideas and free expression.
The rise of civil society rights advocacy
Let us recall the curious but progressive development that occurred in 1985. At a time when nearly all of Africa was under the jackboots of one-party and military dictatorships, the OAU produced the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It then established the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as the mechanism to ensure the adherence of governments to the Charter.
This critical development gave enormous impetus to the emergence and growth of a vibrant civil society movement for human rights advocacy around the continent. Groups and organizations emerged aimed at promoting rights issues at the local, national and regional levels. It is out of this environment and the raging attacks on media rights – which threatened to roll back the progress made – that civil society organizations emerged with a focus on protecting, promoting and defending media freedom at national, regional and continental levels.
The first significant organization to come up, not long after the UN conference on press freedom and pluralism in Windhoek in 1991, was the regional Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA). My colleague and collaborator Mr. Edetaen Ojoh founded the Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria. In the mid-1990s I founded and run the regional Media Foundation for West Africa until I retired this past January 2014. At the same time the traditional national associations or unions of professional journalists found encouragement to reinvigorate their work in protecting their members’ rights.
The work of the MFWA
Monitoring attacks: Alerts
Generally, perpetrators of rights abuses prosecute their crimes in darkness, and that is the primary reason they fear and hate free media and exposure. The first approach we adopted therefore was to set up a system of monitoring attacks on and violations of the rights of media and journalists in each country and on a daily basis, through a network of investigators. Everyday we published the results of the daily monitoring in the form of ALERTS that named and shamed perpetrators of attacks on media freedom, and invited public opinion to demand redress. Through the platforms of the new communications technologies these Alerts received global publicity and reach.
Defending media in wars
The wars in the neighboring countries presented serious challenges. What do we do to protect journalists facing the wrath of warlords and beleaguered governments? What do we do to support journalists fleeing the horrors of war and the persecution of warlords? We set up a programme for a Safe Haven for victims. It consisted of flying victim media persons from their war-torn countries and providing accommodation and basic subsistence, supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees through their local Ghana national outfit. In some cases we received and got medical treatment, including trauma treatment, for wounded or tortured journalists.
Legal defence for the prosecuted
An important instrument governments resorted to in their quest to silence critical and independent media and journalists was the use of the courts. Invoking the old laws that remained unreformed on the books, governments incessantly dragged journalists to court on criminal charges in relation to their work. Prominent among these laws are those on criminal libel, insult, publishing false news/information, and so on.
We set up a fund to support journalists and media who couldn’t afford the costs of legal defence. We also set up a network of lawyers from the region who defended our clients. These lawyers were already committed to the defence of rights in their countries and in the region and they took up the cases on pro bono basis.
The establishment of the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice is an important mechanism for promoting citizens’ rights and justice in the region. It has become a very useful asset in our work to promote and protect journalists’ rights. We presented and won two cases against the government of The Gambia.
The first was a habeas corpus case about a journalist, Chief Ebrimah Manneh, who was arrested by the country’s security agents from his office but has not been since 2007, with the Jammeh regime claiming no knowledge of his whereabouts. The second case was to seek justice and compensation for a journalist tortured by security operatives of the Jammeh regime. I am proud to acknowledge that we won these cases through the learned leadership of our esteemed colleague from Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana. Femi was one of the founders and a strong promoter of the legal defence network. Our work opened the door for other civil society groups to use the regional court to promote justice and human rights.
Advocacy for legal reform
The network of lawyers has been important also in our work to promote enabling legislation to promote and protect media rights and freedom of expression in the region and across the continent. We have worked with them in drafting for ECOWAS’s consideration a framework for media legislation in the region.
Beyond that and working in coalition with other organizations around the continent, the community of free expression advocacy organizations has taken several initiatives for legislative reform to promote media and speech rights. Mr. Edetaen Ojoh has been successively the vice and substantive chairman of the MFWA. You may recall the pioneering work of the MRA in promoting the passage of a Freedom of Information law in Nigeria. Mr. Ojoh and the MRA have followed the success in Nigeria by providing leadership in a continental campaign by a coalition of organizations for the passage of a right to information legislation in other African countries.
Methods of advocacy
As I have indicated, publicity through the mass media and social media has been key in our advocacy and campaign activities. In all these one important strategic approach has always been working with other organizations: building coalitions within countries and across borders, sometimes with NGOs from outside Africa; collaborative cooperation; developing networks of individuals and groups who can share expertise and provide various kinds of support. Such networks and collaborative work have been extremely vital in mounting campaigns and other advocacy activities.
To promote and protect rights, to seek redress for rights abuses, or to promote reforms in law and policy, it is vital to work with governments that are open to pursuing such progressive causes. It is equally vital to seek collaborative relations with and support from regional and international inter-governmental institutions and agencies and their mechanisms. It has been highly beneficial in many ways working with the ACHPR, ECOWAS, AU, and several of the UN agencies with mandates in the areas of media rights and freedom of expression, such as the UN Human Rights Commission, UNESCO, UNDP and others.
In summary, it seems to me, from the accounts of political and constitutional developments over the past three decades, that there is strong basis to be optimistic about the future progress of media development, media freedom and freedom of expression in Africa. There will continue to be reversals, disappointments, relapses into tendencies toward violent and reprehensible forms of restrictions and repression. As long, however, as there continue to be citizens or professionals committed to pursuing progress – even at any cost – progress will always be in sight.
v Kwame Karikari is Associate Professor, School of Communication Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. He delivered this lecture at the 70th birthday of Prof. Olatunji Dare on July 17, 2014 in Lagos, Nigeria.