The Ethical Journalism Network’s latest programme of work in Africa was launched in Nairobi end of October 2017 where, in the midst of political turmoil, Kenyans faced threats of violence and public disorder over the country’s disputed elections.
It was a timely moment for journalists’ leaders from the region, including Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria and Burundi, to discuss the threats to media posed by political violence, tribal conflict and hate-speech.
The meeting is the first of three gatherings across the continent to mobilise media leaders to support ethics and good governance as part of the newsroom fight against fake news, political intolerance and corruption in public life.
Media in East Africa are under particular pressure in the face of punitive laws, including criminal defamation, and where there has been a resurgence of violence against media.
In a recent report rights groups Article 19 and Human Rights Watch documented 16 separate incidents of death threats against journalists in Kenya alone in recent years.
Everywhere the proliferation of fake news stories from social networks has increased pressure on newsrooms which are already struggling to report freely in a tense political climate. In Kenya in particular media are trying to avoid a repeat of the propaganda and incitement which contributed to riots and mass killings after disputed elections in 2007.
One of the innovative suggestions that came from the meeting is to prepare a detailed glossary of hate speech – listing disputed and contentious terms, words and sentiments that could trigger conflict.
The EJN has already assisted journalists in Egypt develop a hate-speech glossary and a similar project is underway for journalists on either side of the divided island of Cyprus, but the task in Kenya is formidable given that there are six main language groups and that any text will have to be carefully developed in consultation with journalists and other stakeholders across the country.
“This will not be a list of banned words,” said Tom Law, EJN Communications Director, “it will a manual that aims to promote debate and discussion and that helps journalists and editors navigate through the treacherous business of reporting carefully and sensitively between communities and on issues that are a lightning rod for conflict.”
The Kenyan initiative, which is supported by the country’s Media Council, journalists’ union, editors’ guild, media employer’s association and human rights groups, could be a model for other countries in the region to follow.
The Nairobi meeting, organised as part of a programme supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also discussed self-regulation and the urgent need for more transparency and good governance in the ownership and management of media in the region.
The EJN’s ethical media audits which are currently being discussed with media in the Western Balkans in a separate EJN programme in co-operation with the European Union and UNESCO, were widely welcomed and media owners will be approached by the EJN and local partners to sign up to these simple ground rules for self-reporting and transparency.
But the challenge of self-regulation is a tall order for journalism in the region. Even where structures for journalists and editors to regulate themselves are in place, legal pressures are growing.
In Kenya, for example, the Media Council is well supported by media and is founded on principles of self-regulation. It was empowered by a 2013 law giving it the power to regulate media through an independent commission that handles complaints against journalists.
However, journalists face additional legal pressures from clauses in the National Security Service Act of 2014 and the Media Authority Act of 2013 which can limit press freedom.
In Uganda a free press is also guaranteed under the country’s constitution, and is made operational by two acts of parliament, but the country still has criminal defamation on the books with the threat of jail for those found guilty.
This is despite rulings of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights against criminalising libel.
There are also laws covering sedition, anti-terrorism and the Computer Misuse Act which all limit press rights and are used by police to intimidate journalists.
In Tanzania, a Media Services Act was signed into law earlier this year and contains a raft of provisions that threaten the rights of journalists and publishers. There are draconian powers to ban publications or issues fines or jail sentences to media offenders on a wide range of journalistic work including national security, public health, public order, morality, economic matters as well as tough rules on insult and defamation. Just importing editorial material that might fall foul of the regulations can lead to a jail term of up to ten years.
The situation in Rwanda, which has had rigid controls on journalism since media involvement in the mass killings during the genocide in 1994, has got steadily worse.
A new media law passed this year increases penalties for criminal defamation and has introduced new regulations banning any insults directed at the President with journalists facing jail terms of up to seven years. Not surprisingly, the law has been condemned by the Rwandan journalists Association.
The retaining of defamation in the penal code is also blow to the Rwandan Media Council, one of the glimmers of hope for self-regulation that has emerged in recent years. The EJN worked in partnership with the Media Council to launch the Turning the Page of Hate Campaign against hate speech in media at a special conference in Kigali in 2014 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide.
Since the Rwandan Media Council was set up there have been fewer arrests and court actions against journalists for defamation.
The council has successfully arbitrated more than 240 individual cases, avoiding court actions, while at the same time handing out orders to offending journalists to publish retractions, write letters of apology and in a few cases pay fines.
The Executive Secretary Emmanuel Mugisha told the East African newspaper this is “a model” of civil and responsible self-regulation of journalism. But Rwanda’s stubborn rulers remain unconvinced.
These developments suggest that more work will need to be done to strengthen the status of self-regulation in the media sector across East Africa. It will be one of the key issues to be discussed in EJN work in the coming months and the Nairobi meeting agreed that the EJN should increase its efforts to support such self-regulation bodies as an alternative to news law and state interference in journalism.
– By Aidan White