Today is World Press Freedom Day, and this year’s theme emphasizes on “information as public good”. Today remains a crucial one for media professionals and citizens who believe in a free press as the cornerstone of democracy.
Last week, Reporters without Borders (RSF), released the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which assesses the state of journalism in 180 countries and regions, and has been published annually since 2002.
This year’s index shows that 73% of the free news industry in 180 countries has been cut or partially cut, which is the main vaccine to prevent false information.
The countries classified in the index are assigned a rating that is calculated from data on abuses and violence against journalists during the evaluated period as well as from responses to the questionnaires from journalists, media lawyers, researchers and media specialists.
The categories are classified from good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).
Norway has become the country with the highest freedom of press and publication for the fifth consecutive year. As far as the protection of press freedom is concerned, Eritrea has been listed as the worst country, Namibia is still the leader of the African continent.
Although Africa has been ranked as the most violent continent for journalists to work in , most of the biggest gains in the 2021 index comes from Africa.Some African countries have greatly improved freedom of the press. In particular, Burundi, which is considered to be a country with improved performance, jumped 13 spots to 147 after 4 independent journalists received a presidential pardon. Sierra Leone and Mali also showed significant improvements.
East African Community (EAC)
The region again ranked poorly in the index. Kenya ranks 102nd out of 180 countries this year, and Burundi ranks 147th out of 160 countries in 2020, making it the country with the best level of improvement in the world. Tanzania and Uganda stayed at 124th and 125th place respectively, South Sudan 139 and Rwanda 156.
The country has increased from 103 in 2020 to 102 this year. Although Kenya’s press freedom is still classified as “problematic”, it has long been considered the best place for journalistic activities in the region.
On Wednesday 21 this month, the High Court in Siaya made what was seen by media players as a “historic ruling” by sentencing Joel Ogolla Luta to 35 years in prison after finding him responsible of the murder of former Star newspaper journalist Eric Oloo.
Other recent attacks on individual journalists include the arrest of nine journalists in Embu last week as the police continued to expel residents from disputed land in Makima, Embu County.
According to reporters without Borders: “In recent years, the freedom of the press in Kenya has gradually declined. Since 2016, the political situation and security have been used as reasons for restricting the freedom to inform.”
According to the index report, the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the use of force to prevent journalists from working, and in the Swahili-speaking nation, the late president John Pombe Magufuli called the virus a “western conspiracy”, suggesting that Tanzania had kept it at bay through “divine intervention”.
He imposed an information blackout on the pandemic before his death in March 2021. In early April, Tanzanian new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan ordered the reopening of media outlets that were closed or otherwise repressed under President John Magufuli, who died in March.
In recent years, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) had documented the use of media shutdowns, arrests, intimidation, judicial harassment, and restrictive regulations to muzzle the free press.
Journalists in Tanzania say they’re hopeful that Samia’s April remarks on press freedom will bring real reforms, and the opening of the civic space..
The nation has maintained the same position since 2019. Acts of intimidation and violence against journalists are an almost daily occurrence. Security services are the leading press freedom predators.
On February 17, 2021- Ugandan soldiers assaulted journalists, they used sticks and batons to beat at least 10 journalists covering opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, known popularly as Bobi Wine, while he delivered a petition to a United Nations office in Kololo.
The military head in Uganda, General David Muhoozi apologised for the attacks and promised to pay the journalists’ medical bills. Six soldiers were later handed prison sentences of up to three months by a military court for taking part in the brutal beating of local journalists.
Though the nation has dropped with one position from 138 last year to 139 in 2021, no journalist has been killed for the third year in a row, but the press environment remains hostile.
According to Reporters Without Borders, close surveillance and intimidation are one of the regime’s predatory practices. Security personnel usually check the content directly with printing presses.
South Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Iraq are the four worst countries in this order, as wars and political instability continue to create a cycle of violence and lawlessness.
Reporters without Borders ranks the East African nation as the global top performer in terms of improvement, moving 13 spots above on the World Press Freedom Index report.
Burundi ranked position 147, rising from 160 in 2020. The report shows that the election of a new president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, in May 2020 raised journalists’ hopes after years of persecution since the 2015 coup attempt.
The attempted coup and political instability that followed resulted in more than 100 journalists fleeing the country and the closure of many media outlets.
“The release of four IWACU reporters in December 2020, Burundi’s leading independent media group, who had been jailed arbitrarily for more than a year, and the president’s request to the media regulator to ‘settle the differences’ with sanctioned media outlets were seen as encouraging signs,’’ the report said.
A Burundian-based journalist who spoke to The Standard on condition of anonymity notes that they’ve seen amnesty granted to journalists who were jailed, and more media houses are opening in the country. The source says, although there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel, they still have a long way to go in as far as press freedom is concerned.
BBC, VOA, and two local media houses, however, remain banned in Burundi.
The situation remains unchanged as the East African nation stagnates on press freedom. Rwanda has dropped from 155 in 2020 to 156 in 2021 this year. Although the country is stable, reporters know the red line that they are actually not allowed to cross.
Experts say that there is a difficult relationship between the state and the press. The Rwandan government has updated its penal code, to formally legalize the crime of defamation, a move that the Rwandan Journalists association sees it as a “very important step.”