Policing Press Freedom

A rather curious virus has been making its rounds in East Africa. It’s known as “curtailing press freedom” and each country in the region seems to have a different strain of it. It’s not an overnight development either but rather one that has been brewing for quite some time.

On Monday afternoon, Ugandan police raided the offices of Monitor Publications and closed down it’s newspaper, The Monitor, and two radio stations – KFM and Dembe FM. According to the managing editor’s statement, the officers showed up with a search warrant, blocked all exits and insisted that they wanted to conduct a search. According to reports, (here and here), the police claimed to be looking for documents associated with a widely covered story quoting a letter to the internal intelligence services about sinister plots over the succession of the president.

Such claims are serious and the police should fully investigate them. However, it’s one thing for the police to work with the media in their investigations and another for them to use their force to intimidate the media so that they stay away from certain stories. It can be argued that the police were aggressive because the folks over at the Monitor were being uncooperative. The officers’ extreme actions invalidate this argument though and are evidence of an ulterior motive. First of all, they blocked all the exits. Was that kind of over-enthusiastic show of force really needed especially given their claims of what they wanted? They proceeded to disable the printing press, computer servers and radio transmission equipment. What do any of those have to do with their search for documents? Reports state that police electricians were also called in to disconnect the offices from the grid. The police had already surrounded the building, they had a search warrant and armed officers inside. Did they really have to over-dramatize the process? Clearly, there are many addicts of table-flipping, bottle-throwing reality TV out there.

The Monitor was well within their rights in informing the public about what a government official had said. That’s one of the reasons why the press exists. If the police were keen on investigating the matter all they had to do is request a copy of the letter. They would then be able to verify its authenticity and launch a full scale investigation if needed.

Sadly, this is not the only time the government and its forces have tried to curtail the press freedom.

In September 2012, Tanzanian police attacked and shot dead a veteran TV reporter. His crime – confronting the police over the arrest of another journalist during an opposition rally. (Read more here) Why didn’t they just tell him to leave? or threaten to arrest him? The message they are sending to the press is – if you question us you could potentially lose your life. There have been several reports of police harassing and harming journalists for reporting on issues that are considered unflattering such as corruption, embezzlement of public funds, abuse of power and shoddy business dealings among others. Again, this is information that the public needs to be aware of and the press is the vehicle that carries that message. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government of Tanzania can use 17 repressive, media-related statutes to crack down on critical coverage. Wow. That might explain why a significant portion of news that comes out of Tanzania is full of sunshine and blue skies. There is a concerted effort to prevent the negative from being reported on.

Kenya hasn’t been spared either. Although the media has gained more freedom over the years, total press freedom is yet to be achieved. In September 2011, the offices of Nairobi Law Monthly were raided by unknown assailants and their computers and hard disks stolen. Journalists have been threatened for investigating and covering stories ranging from drug smuggling to coffee factory theft. (Read more here) Who can ever forget the March 2006 police raid on the Standard Group? The police broke doors, manhandled employees and took their cellphones, disconnected CCTV cameras, carried away computers, disabled the Standard printing press and burnt copies of the newspaper. It reads like a low-cost movie script but it really did happen. This is also the event that introduced Kenyans to two Armenian brothers who seemed to be in charge of the country for a brief period back then.

What gives East African governments? What gives!? Are leaders not aware of the importance of a free press? Do they simply not care? What is the point of claiming to have press freedom when there are dubious statutes that can curtail it and officials who are too eager to use force against anyone who dares to depict them in their true colors? How can you police the press so intensely and then turn around and declare that you are committed to protecting journalists? Bag of contradictions much?

A free press exists for the benefit of ordinary citizens. Once gagging journalists becomes a regular occurrence then its only a matter of time before individuals are forced to kiss freedom of expression goodbye.



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