Are we really getting tired of media freedom?

BY: Nana Kwesi Gyan Aponteng
Nana Kwesi Gyan Aponteng
Nana Kwesi Gyan Aponteng

One of the most startling reports about the media in recent years was presented at the just ended World Press Freedom Day celebration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The report which is based on a survey carried out by Afrobarometer suggests that the majority of Africans prefer government control of the media to an independent media.

Afrobarometer is a Pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network which measures and reports on public attitudes and opinions on democracy and governance, the economy, civil society, human rights and other topics.

This report is the sixth of its Pan-African Profiles series based on recent public-opinion surveys in 34 African countries.

The findings show that media-freedom supporters are now outnumbered by those who believe governments should have the right to prevent publications they consider harmful. Among the key findings, the report shows that in 25 out of 31 countries tracked since 2011 support an unfettered media declined.

To put it more bluntly, the report shows that in those countries, the majority of people want government censorship of the media.

More worryingly, the majority of Africans see that the greater freedom enjoyed by the media today is a problem instead of an opportunity. In Ghana, 57 per cent of citizens want the government to control the media.

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While the report says that more Africans see the media’s freedom to investigate and criticise government as increasing than declining, it also shows that “Africans are generally dissatisfied with the state of the media”.

Of those who say freedom is increasing in their country, a majority (54%) support increased government regulations. An interesting finding of the report is that countries where media freedom is on the decline support greater independence of the media.

Here are other key findings of the report:

• Popular support for media freedom continues to decline, dropping to below half (47%) of respondents across 34 countries.

More Africans (49%) now say governments should have the right to prevent publications they consider harmful. Across 31 countries tracked since 2011, support for media freedom has declined by 10 percentage points.

• Twenty-five of 31 countries tracked since 2011 experienced declines in support for media freedom over that period, including steep drops in Tanzania (-33 percentage points), Cabo Verde (-27), Uganda (-21), and Tunisia (-21) (Figure 3).

• Radio remains the top source for mass-media news, though its dominance is declining: 42% report using it every day, down five percentage points from 2011/2013.

Television is a daily news source for about one in three Africans (35%), and is the top source for news in nine countries. Only seven per cent read newspapers daily.

• Reliance on the Internet and social media for news is increasing rapidly. Almost one in five Africans say they use the Internet (18%) and/or social media (19%) daily for news.

The report also shows that radio remains ahead of television as the most widely accessed source of news. Use of the Internet and social media as news sources is expanding, but a large digital divide still disadvantages poorer, less-educated, older, rural and female citizens.

It is the part of the report showing the definite decline in support for free media that causes alarm. If the results are accurate, and there is no reason to doubt this, it would suggest a radical shift in opinion over the past several years.

This situation is rather baffling because for the past half century, press freedom has been a rallying cry in the overall struggle for political and governance reforms in our country.

Various studies have indicated that the state monopoly of the media was one of the main causes of violent conflicts in a number of African countries in the bad old days of the 1970s, 80s and in some cases even to the present day.

The easing of government pressure on the media is one of the most visible indicators of democracy and inclusive government not only in Africa but throughout the world.

It is for this reason that Ghana has been lauded for its democratic credentials worldwide. At the moment, Ghana has the second freest media in Africa, according to the latest ranking by Reporters Without Borders. The assumption is that our media is free because citizens want it that way.

But according to this report 57 percent of Ghanaians WANT more government control of the media.
What could account for this change of mind?

To be continued