Press freedom is becoming even more elusive in East Africa

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Press freedom has never been abundant in East Africa but the past few months have seen some of the region’s leading nations implement regulations that stifle media organisations, journalists and publishers.

Kenya’s cybercrime bill is being criticised by many as an attack on freedom of speech, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and various civil groups in the region’s largest economy.

Meanwhile, Tanzania has introduced new media regulations that only allow licensed publishers – who must pay up to $900 per year – to post blogs and other forms of online content. And, now, Uganda is implementing a tax on social media which limits people’s access to popular networks and open news sources such as Facebook and Twitter.

With Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda all taking a swipe at press freedoms over the past few months, East Africa is becoming synonymous with media suppression – a worrying sign for progress in the region.

Big men vs press freedoms

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni is East Africa’s representative “big man”, having been in power for more than 30 years. Earlier this year, the country removed a constitutional age limit that would have prevented Museveni from running in Uganda’s next presidential election but now the 73-year-old is free to run again and extend his rule even further.

Tanzania’s John Magufuli has only been in office since 2015 and the early days of his rule were widely celebrated – particularly the hard stance he took against corruption within the government and associated organisations. However, Magufuli’s reputation as a dictator has grown over the past few years and his equally hard stance against press freedoms in the country is gaining attention.

In Tanzania, bloggers now have to pay as much as $920 per year in licensing fees to publish content online. The average annual wage in Tanzania is under $900, essentially silencing the voices of most online commentators in the country. Anyone caught publishing or running a site without an approved licence could be fined up to $2,200, imprisoned for a minimum of 12 months – or both.

In the case of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta can hardly be called a big man and the country’s but the country’s latest cybercrime laws have all the potential to stifle press freedoms in the same as its East African neighbours.

East Africa against press freedoms

The latest developments in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda leave press freedoms across East Africa in tatters. Wedged between Uganda and Tanzania, you have Rwanda sitting atop Burundi where Paul Kagame’s government has a tight grip on the media and press freedoms have been obliterated during Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term as Burundi’s president.

To the north of Uganda, you have South Sudan where the government’s continued suppression of media and press freedoms are merely one of the country’s long list of rights abuses. Moving further north takes you to Sudan where newspapers are routinely shit down by security forces for criticising the government or covering topics the state doesn’t approve of.

In the Horn of Africa, Eritrea remains one of the world’s most secretive states where press freedom is non-existent while Somalia and Djibouti are among the world’s poorest performers in the press freedoms index by Reporters without Borders.

Finally, we haven’t even mentioned Ethiopia where anti-terror laws are used to detain bloggers and government critics – some of whom have been sentenced to death for their supposed crimes. The country’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has released more than 1,000 prisoners detained under these laws since coming into office in April and suggested his government will push for changes to be made to the country’s controversial anti-terror laws.

Whether such changes will actually be implemented remains to be seen and it would be a solitary piece of good news is East Africa’s troubling story regarding press freedoms.

Featured image: Public domain

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.