Media Faces New Level of Repression in Africa

People demonstrate to demand the release of detained activist and journalist Omoyele Sowore.

Source KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty

Why you should care

Because the strangulation of media freedom is reversing the continent's recent gains.

The first manifestation of an emerging tyranny is the repression of free press and expression. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists recognized this when they issued a statement on Nov. 15, 2019, about the attack on journalists in Nigeria, who were covering a protest in the capital, Abuja. The committee also demanded the release of detained fellow journalist Omoyele Sowore, who had been arrested two months earlier.

For the past 10 years, when Sowore and I were not working together on one Saharareporters.com project or another, we would be talking about postcolonial African history, the subject of a class he was teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

In the summer of 2018, I found myself teaching the class for Sowore because he decided to run for president of Nigeria. Eleven years after he founded Saharareporters.com and used the citizen journalism platform to expose corruption and injustices in Nigeria, he was not satisfied with the transformation his media outfit brought about and was ready to make an impact in other ways.

Whatever gains Africa made in the last decade are being reversed.

Sowore’s run for president didn’t gather the momentum he had expected. He came in a distant 10th in a field of 78 candidates. His determination to remain involved led him to his next venture, which was to organize a protest he called RevolutionNow.

On the night of Aug. 3, 2019, agents of the Nigerian secret police, the DSS, stormed his Lagos hotel room and arrested him. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari accused him of trying to use his protest to overthrow the government of Nigeria.

Sowore remains in DSS detention and is facing seven counts that range from treasonable felony, cyberstalking and money laundering to insulting Buhari. Two different courts in Nigeria have granted Sowore bail, but the government has ignored these court orders and refused to release him.

While Sowore and his associate Olawale Bakare — who was also picked up by the DSS — are getting media attention, Dadiyata Abubakar Idris, Stephen Kefas, Agba Jalingo and Jones Abiri, all held in detention in Nigeria for doing their work, are not.

The situation is no different in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Cameroon, Liberia and Rwanda. In fact, across Africa, there is a new wave of attacks on the media, on activists and trade unionists, and all those who are demanding good governance and genuine democracy.

In Uganda, musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, and his supporters continue to be targeted by President Yoweri Museveni. In Ghana, the government of Nana Akufo-Addo recently accused a group fighting for reforms of insurrection against the state.

With a toothless and dependent judiciary and parliaments that are mere rubber stamps of the executive branch, people in many African nations have no institution to run to. In the past, their leaders at times moderated their behavior out of fear that they might annoy America, Britain and the rest of the West, who gave them aid and strengthened their grip over their nations.

In August, unidentified armed men abducted Zimbabwean political satirist Samantha Kureya from her home. They stripped her, beat her up and made her drink sewage. The attack on her was part of an expanding crackdown on critics of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF party. In October, armed policemen stormed the office of Roots FM, and independent radio station in Monrovia, Liberia, and closed it down while its most popular show was on the air. The police removed the station’s broadcasting equipment and several documents in an effort to silence those voices critical of President George Weah.

But with the election of President Donald Trump and Britain drowning in the politics of Brexit, African leaders are like hawks without any concern that someone might try and stop them from snatching young chicks from hens.

Whatever gains Africa made in the last decade are being reversed. One country after another is strangulating social media with taxes and imposing stiff penalties for use of these platforms in any way the government deems negative. By the time the West regains her composure, Africa will have taken two steps backward. As for Africa, by the time its young population wakes up, the much-heralded Africa rising would have once again turned into another era of unfulfilled potential.

Meanwhile, as Sowore and other African journalists, activists and trade unionists languish in prison, African leaders court India, China, Russia and France in search of aid, loans and solutions to Africa’s developmental problems. This has been the story of postcolonial Africa. And when next I teach Sowore’s class, I will not only be talking about dead African leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko and Kwame Nkrumah, but I will also be talking about the fate of Sowore as the contemporary epitome of the same old postcolonial African story.

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