If there is anything African journalists have learned from their American compatriots, it’s the role of a free press in fostering the growth of Africa’s fledgling democracies. Through its diplomatic missions in most countries—yes, most, because in a few cases dictators are still left to run amok on the continent—Americans vigorously and unflinchingly support democracy, rule of law and freedom of the press.
For African journalists, attempts to muzzle and silence them are well documented and not uncommon, although it should be said there are countries that embody free press on the continent. But they, too, are not without their own problems. There are cases of some African governments maintaining and passing new repressive laws that put a block in the path of media freedom.
In numerous instances, journalists are harassed, threatened, arrested and forced into exile. Eritrea and Sudan are labelled the most notorious in Africa when it comes to harassing journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. For airing interviews with opposition leaders, radio stations have faced closure. African governments also employ other subtle ways of muzzling the press, such as deliberately refusing to liberalize the airwaves by withholding or overly scrutinizing the issuance of radio, television or newspaper licenses.
It is in instances like these that, on top of their own efforts, the press on the African continent look to the West for support.
But recent events surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump and his treatment of journalists have cast a very long shadow of doubt. His branding of the news as “fake” and the conduct of some of his press conferences have led some, including political scientists, to draw parallels between his behavior and that of African politicians.
One would have never imagined, for instance, that the press secretary of a U.S. president would convene a press conference just to “correct” reports that there were fewer people at Trump’s inauguration than at the inauguration of his predecessor. Of course, that is something an African president would be concerned about—the size of the crowd at his rally. Some even go to the extent of ferrying people to political gatherings to make it look like they have a following.
“For a student of African politics like myself, President Trump’s attempts to malign the media sound very familiar,” notes Malawian political scientist Boniface Dulani. “It is something that seems to come straight from the handbook of dictatorship, written and refined by the many dictators on our much beloved continent who do not want their decisions to be challenged. Attacking the media, as Trump has been doing, is a strategy that seeks to project power for leaders who are unsure of their grip on the very power in the first place.”
As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. African journalists, who are all too familiar with this kind of rhetoric, fear for a profession that already is under constant attack by those in positions of power on the continent.
Journalists on the continent have observed familiar scenes of reporters in the U.S. being barred from attending press conferences or being invited but not being given the opportunity to ask questions. Of course, African scenes border more on the extreme.
Take Malawi, where I am from, as an example. To start with, press briefings are rare (surprisingly similar to what happens in Israel). There tends to be war-like relations between the press and statehouse. In general, the president decides when he wants to address the press. There is usually no fixed schedule, although you may expect a press conference when the president is departing or arriving from an international trip.
The situation sharply changes when it’s an international media powerhouse, such as CNN or the BBC. Oh! African leaders will jump at such opportunities. There is a feeling among African journalists that their governments tend to spring less into action when local journalists have carried out an investigation than when it’s the international media.
For journalists like Teresa Temweka Ndanga, director of news at a top private radio station in Malawi, her reaction to events in the U.S. is tinged with fear for the future of press freedom on the continent. In her native Malawi, the tale of journalists from private media companies being sidelined at press conferences in favor of “public,” government-owned or government-leaning media outlets is all too familiar.
More often, when press conference are held, only designated reporters are expected to ask questions. For the designated reporters, who, like me, work for state broadcasters and other government agencies, the expectation is that you will ask a dumb question, such as. “Mr. President, how was your successful trip to country so-and-so.”
On the flip side, journalists like Ndanga have at times to take matters into their own hands. “My team and I were allowed to attend a briefing by President Peter Mutharika, but none [of the three of us] was given the opportunity to pose any questions. I only got to ask when I just grabbed a mic and justified the need for me to be given the opportunity, since none of those who had asked were women.”
The point is, your ability to get onto the dance floor is more a result of your tactics.
At another of President Mutharika’s briefings, Ndanga recollects that while she was given the opportunity to ask questions, party supporters present were booing and murmuring, creating an intimidating environment. “I’m very surprised because I thought it’s only in Malawi and Africa where press briefings become mini-rallies with party supporters clapping hands and cheering or a leader attacking a journalist bluntly for the question they asked or being accused of being opposition,” says Agnes Mizere, a Malawian reporter who has been a journalist for over 20 years.
What has helped journalists on the continent survive the constant badgering is to issue press statements condemning such actions, writing statehouses and uniting as one force. “Trump will be trying to play the divide and rule game and, if not careful, there will be some media houses that will be turned into praise entities and others into enemies of the administration,” says Ndanga. “Trump may praise and like Fox News and hate CNN, but Fox should never be fooled into getting comfortable with the administration to the point of failing to critically analyze Trump’s decisions and actions. An attack on CNN should signal that the president could at one time turn against another media house. They therefore need to resist the media attacks as a block.”
Still, many journalists fear the effect Trump’s actions are likely to have on African despots with regard to their treatment of the media.
“Trump’s media attacks can only serve to embolden African dictators to similarly clamp down on the independent media, which often sheds light on government shady dealings and corrupt behavior by elected officials,” observes Dulani. “The job of free media advocates has just become harder as the U.S. is slowly but surely losing its moral position as the leader of the free world, giving dictators across the world free rein to ignore media rights and liberties that took years to gain.”
For journalists, the fear is the thought of having nowhere to run. “Mr. Trump has intensified his campaign to discredit the media,” Dulani worries. “As a journalist residing and working in Africa, this is a worrying trend, especially as our leaders oftentimes act as Trump is doing today. They, however, tone down a bit when diplomatic representation from such countries as the U.S. cautions them. Now it will become difficult.”
In the midst of all this uncertainty, African journalists can find solace in the fact that ordinary Africans from 36 out of the continent’s 54 countries who have had it with corrupt leaders overwhelmingly (69 percent) want the media to investigate and report on government mistakes and corruption, according to a 2016 Afrobarometer study. The hope is that U.S. audiences still value the role of journalists in keeping those in power in check.