Back in the late 19th century, European powers were setting sail for Africa, sweeping across the continent, colonising country after country. Once they took power, they wrote laws designed to ensure that the colonised would not rise up against the colonisers; laws that could also be used to silence, censor, jail or intimidate journalists who refused to toe the line.

Much of that colonial legislation is still in place today, and there is now a growing list of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa falling afoul of those laws.

In October 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), newspaper editor Sylvanie Kiaku was jailed for publishing articles critical of a bank. She was prosecuted under a defamation law dating back to 1940, when the DRC was a Belgian colony.

In November 2016, five Zambian radio journalists were arrested for allegedly calling a member of the ruling party a "useless person". They were charged under Section 179 of the Zambian penal code, which dates back to British colonial times.

There is no way that a government, a democratically-elected government or a post-colonial government, should be in a position to use colonial-era laws or apartheid laws to try and subjugate the population.

Angela Quintal, Africa Programme co-ordinator, CPJ

And in another former British colony, Botswana, Outsa Mokone, a newspaper editor at the Sunday Standard, published a report that a former president was involved in a late-night car crash. He was charged with sedition.

"The irony ... is that the world looks at Botswana and sees it as a bastion of democracy and stable rule in sub-Saharan Africa. And yet, unfortunately, sedition still remains a crime in Botswana and it is used to close down the democratic space," says Angela Quintal, Africa Programme coordinator, CPJ. 

When the decolonisation process began in the late 1950s and African governments started coming into power, securing independence was the priority, not media freedom.

According to Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, director at the Media Institute of Southern Africa, post-colonial leaders called for a free media at first, "but after that [independence], they changed. They decided to use the strategy that was used by their colonial masters and there was a reason for that ... Our leaders see the media as an opposition and they don't understand the role of the media."

It's not just the legacy of colonialism that lingers on in Africa - but the legal residue of apartheid in South Africa. Next month marks 25 years of democracy in the country but journalists there still have to contend with laws that were designed to preserve white-minority rule.

South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC)has made several attempts to replace the 1982 Protection of State Information Act with its own version, but the bill has remained on the president's desk for nearly six years now awaiting signature. Until then, the apartheid-era law remains in force.

"It's important that people realise that if they want to live in a democratic society that there is no way that a government, a democratically-elected government or a post-colonial government, should be in a position to use colonial era-laws or apartheid laws to try and subjugate the population," says Quintal.

Historical laws aside, there's an unwritten cultural code in the region. It's called 'ubuntu' - the idea in African culture that a shared sense of humanity builds and binds communities. The challenge for modern-day African societies and their leaders, who are no longer united by the common goal of ending colonial rule is how to reconcile the reverence of 'ubuntu' with the irreverence of critical journalism.

"I am convinced that they want to keep those laws in the statute books because they have a vested interest," says Outsa Mokone, editor, Sunday Standard. "And there is no way these guys are going to voluntarily relinquish their power to the extent that journalists are able to criticise them freely."

 

Contributors

Outsa Mokone - editor, Sunday Standard

Sethunya Tshepho Mosime - lecturer, University of Botswana

Angela Quintal - Africa Programme coordinator, CPJ

Vuyisile Hlatshwayo - director, Media Institute of Southern Africa

Source: Al Jazeera