South Africa has dropped to number 31 out of 180 countries surveyed in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), falling three places from its 2018 ranking.
At number 23, Namibia is the highest-ranked African country on the list, which features Nordic regions Norway, Finland and Sweden in the top three spots respectively.
“The RSF Index shows that an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment,” RSF said in a statement. “The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries has incited increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.”
Changes in government have affected the degree of press freedom in several African countries.
After Ethiopia elected Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister in April 2018, the country has seen many reforms, including the lifting of bans on a number of media websites and the release of imprisoned journalists and bloggers.
Moves such as these have seen Ethiopia move up 40 places to the 110th position on the list.
The end of Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule in Gambia in December 2016, during which dissidents and journalists were picked up and tortured by the dreaded National Intelligence Agency (NIA), has seen reforms in the country which resulted in it moving up 30 places to number 92.
But new leadership has not always been positive for African journalists; Tanzania, which has dropped 25 places down to 118, has been on a downward spiral since President John Magufuli came into power in 2015. Magufuli has been known for enforcing censorship and restrictive policies. Earlier this year, Tanzania’s Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe said that his government is open to reviewing the controversial Media Services Act, which has been criticised by journalists and rights groups as a violation of the right to freedom of expression. Mauritania, which is holding blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkhaitir in custody for writing an article which condemned the use of religion to justify slavery, fell 22 places to be placed 94th on the list; Mkhaitir was supposed to be released over eighteen months ago.
In Sudan (175th place), RSF has registered 100 arrests of journalists and scores of confiscations of newspaper issues since late December 2018, which saw the start of the biggest protests in more than 30 years calling for President Omar al-Bashir’s removal and new elections. Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) continues to seize entire newspaper issues as they come off the press, in part to throttle the publishers economically.
In Mozambique, foreign correspondents can expect to pay prohibitively expensive fees in order to produce stories from the country, particularly ahead of elections set to be held in August. Last year, the Mozambique chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) strongly condemned the new regulations, describing themselves as “shocked by its content” and describing the measures as “very penalising for the Mozambican media.”
“In what appears to be a deliberate ploy to limit media freedom and access to information, journalists, human rights defenders, activists, civil society organisations and researchers who have spoken out against the attacks and killings are being harassed, intimidated, abducted and arbitrarily detained,” the Mail & Guardian reported earlier this year about intimidation of those who have spoken out against unrest in the country.
“In this continent of contrasts, bad situations have continued unchanged in some countries,” RSF said. “The Democratic Republic of Congo (154th on the list) was again the country where RSF registered the most violations in 2018, while Somalia (164th) continued to be Africa’s deadliest country for journalists.”
Only 24% of the countries surveyed by RSF are classified as “good” or “fairly good” in terms of press freedom, down from 26% last year. The three methods traditionally used to harass and gag the media — violence, arrests and closures — are nowadays often bolstered by a new, growing range of economic forms of pressure.
The index has also found that threats, insults and attacks are now part of the “occupational hazards” for journalists in many countries, with hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders in many countries inciting increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence that have fuelled an unprecedented level of fear and danger for journalists.