The Seychelles knocked Namibia off its best-in-Africa perch this month. Not as a tourism destination but as a place hospitable to journalists (though these might be related).
The Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) annual media freedom index saw Seychelles make a remarkable jump in the last year from 85th in the list of 180 countries to 13th best in the world. How did they do it? “Media pluralism, diversity of opinion and the capacity to tackle major issues have been developing in Seychelles or the past ten years or so,” RSF said.
Self-censorship, previously prevalent, has “slowly dissipated” and media feels free to criticize government and expose corruption and nepotism. Defamation was decriminalized last year and confidentiality of sources protected. And here’s the kicker: “Seychelles is one of the very rare African countries in which most journalists are women.”
Namibia did well – rising from 25th on the list last year to 18th this year – but not well enough to keep its place as the longstanding continental leader. “Freedom of the press is firmly anchored in Namibia … the political and legislative environment is conducive to the free exercise of journalism”, RSF said. “Journalists are free to work without interference from the authorities …[and] press freedom is often defended by the judiciary when it comes under attacks”. What it lacks, though, is access to information legislation which recognizes the right of citizens to get their hands on official documentation and data.
That’s the good news. Across this part of the world, there’s also plenty of decline in media freedom. Botswana dropped this year from a respectable 38th position to a worrying 95th, one of the biggest declines in the world. It was a year, RSF, said when the “most serious abuses” declined, but journalists still faced many hindrances in their work. The Botswana legal framework “is still extremely repressive”, and a major problem was state dominance of media, either through ownership or through the allocation of advertising.
South Africa stayed a steady 35th in the world, down marginally from 32 last year. RSF praised our “well-established culture of investigative journalism”, but cited the increase in “verbal and physical attacks” from political leaders and activists and “smear campaigns”. The most virulent of these attacks came from the Economic Freedom Fighters, they said.
RSF’s annual index, released on World Media Freedom Day, May 3, gives pause each year for us to think about the many different factors that affect media freedom and the impact it has on each country.
Zimbabwe continued its steady downward trajectory, moving from 130th to 137th and Madagascar dropped from 57 to 98, alarmingly. The lowest country in this region, though, was eSwatini at a dismal 131, just ahead of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 125. These are not good places to be in the business of reporting.
The RSF list is an imperfect measure of relative media freedom, and is not without those who criticize its methodology. We also have to be careful in comparing year-on-year, as their criteria were updated this year to take more account of digital technologies. Nevertheless, it is probably still the best gauge we have of media freedom trends. RSF says that what they are measuring is “the effective possibility for journalists … to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.” So it is a comprehensive definition that encompasses a wide set of possible hindrances to the capacity to practice journalism.
They do it through a quantitative survey of incidents and attacks, and a qualitative survey of experts answering 123 questions on the political, economic, legal, social and security situation as it affects the media. So it looks at factors ranging from killings and jailings, through to threats and hostility as well as diversity and pluralism – though one could argue about the relative weightings they give these elements.
On the global outlook, they highlight the “disastrous effects of news and information chaos” as a result of “unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda”. They point to growing polarization within democratic societies and between open and despotic societies.
Because everyone will ask, the top media freedom countries were the Scandinavian trio – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – with Estonia jumping to a surprise 4th position, up from 15th. The worst culprits on the globe were North Korea and Eritrea, the disgrace of Africa, at least in its handling of the media.
Russia was at a “very serious” 155th position, but not too far ahead was Ukraine at a “problematic” 106 .
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Chair of Journalism at Wits University.