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Policy paper

PP56: How free is too free? Across Africa, media freedom is on the defensive

In Africa, as elsewhere, mass media face increasing opportunities and threats.
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In Africa, as elsewhere, mass media face increasing opportunities and threats. New technologies have made it easier for producers to share content widely and cheaply, resulting in a proliferation and diversification of information sources (Varzandeh, 2018). And broader populations can access content more easily and cheaply than ever before – and contribute to those discussions themselves – through call-in programs on vernacular radio stations, Internet news sites and blogs, and social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter.

On the flip side, new competition and access to cost-free content threaten media organizations’ bottom lines. Consumer skepticism of media actors has skyrocketed as more people see media as propagators of falsehoods, bias, and hate speech, particularly when messages are critical of politicians or policies they support. Politicians – in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes – are more than happy to stoke this anger, which provides opportunities for governments to launch increasingly brazen legal and extra-legal attacks on media. Prominent media watchdogs, such as Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, have documented increases in government regulations, censorship, and even violence against media actors in Africa and around the world (Reporters Without Borders, 2018a; Shahbaz, 2018; Simon, 2017).

Where do ordinary Africans – the intended beneficiaries – stand in this fast-moving debate on freedom and limits?

The latest round of the Afrobarometer survey, conducted in 34 countries in all regions of the continent, raises a red flag for free-press advocates: Popular support for media freedom – a majority view just three years ago – is now in the minority, exceeded by those who would grant governments the censor’s pencil.

This warning flag also marks a paradox. On the one hand, many Africans believe that media in their countries have more freedoms today than they did several years ago. However, it is not clear that people view these developments positively. In fact, among citizens who see media freedoms as increasing in their country, those calling for increased government restrictions on media significantly outnumber those who support broad press freedoms.

Perhaps more encouragingly, those who see media freedoms as declining in their country are more likely to support freedoms than restrictions. Either way, it appears that a substantial number of Africans are dissatisfied with the current state of the media in their country, at least with regard to the demand for and supply of freedoms.

Even so, nearly all Africans turn to mass media for news. Radio is still the most widely accessed source of news, followed by television, while newspaper readership remains relatively rare on the continent. Access to Internet and social media is expanding, with majorities in some countries reporting regular use. However, there is a large digital divide: Access to digital sources is much higher in some countries than others, and is skewed in favour of wealthier, better-educated, younger, urban, and male citizens.

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Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz

Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz is an associate professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Afrobarometer Working Papers series.

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny

Josephine is Afrobarometer's acting director of communications.