According to a recent survey by Afrobarometer, support for media freedom on the continent is on the decline. In its Round 7 policy survey conducted among more than 45,000 responders in 34 countries, Afrobarometer discovered that more Africans are advocating for less freedom for the media in 25 of 31 countries.

Afrobarometer is a “pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in African countries”. Its latest survey findings are results of face-to-face interviews with respondents, between September 2016 and September 2018. Only 47 percent of Africans support media freedom, a harbinger of declining regards for free expression on the continent. While many of the respondents believe media freedom itself is on the increase, they see as a problem for development.

In the survey, support for media freedom by Africans has declined on the continent by 11 percent, between 2011 and 2018. It has declined by 33 percent since 2011, in Tanzania, the highest media freedom support decline in Africa. Sudan is the only African country that recorded an increase in popular support for media freedom.

Other countries that have experienced a steep decline in the clamor for media freedom include Cape Verde, Uganda, and Tanzania. According to the survey, supporters of media freedom are outnumbered now by people who don’t. In fact, many of the latter group support the idea that African governments should have the power to stop publications that are considered harmful, and should also enforce more media regulation.

A reason for this recent clamuor for less media freedom is a dissatisfaction with the media. Many are dissatisfied with the seeming spread of misinformation by the media, popularly called “fake news.”A study last year showed that Africans unknowingly spread “fake news’ at a faster rate than in the United States, and hence, attribute their distrust of the media to fake news. Many of the respondents in the survey also claimed to trust international media more than local African media.

In many of these countries, where media freedom has been wrongly perceived, the government has played on the dissatisfaction to enforce more regulation on the media. In Uganda and Tanzania, where the clamour for media freedom has declined by 21 and 33 percent respectively, the government has levied huge taxes on social media, a medium that is increasingly becoming the main source of news online.

In Uganda, bloggers and journalists have to pay 200 Ugandan shillings (or $0.05) per day of use for 60 mobile apps, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp, in a country where more than 27 percent live below the poverty line. Social media tax in Tanzania is steeper, with online content creators “- traditional media websites, online TV and radio channels, but also individual bloggers and podcasters — to pay roughly two million Tanzanian shillings (930 US dollars) in registration and licensing fees”. These content creators also either pay a fine of five million Tanzanian shillings (2,202 US dollars) or do some jail term or both, if they are found to post content that is “indecent”, “annoying” or “leads to public disorder”, as determined by the Tanzanian government.

The assumption that media freedom on the continent is on the increase is wrong; press members have been victims of attacks, harassment, and arbitrary arrests on the press by African governments in the past few years, especially in West Africa.

It’s ironic that West Africa, which has seen witnessed an increase in press attacks, is the region with the lowest support for media freedom. Are we witnessing a reversal of fortunes for West Africa, and most of Africa, after the rapid democratization in the past decade?

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