Regulating the UK media sends the wrong signal to Africa

As outsiders, we have always admired the level of freedom British journalists enjoy while carrying out their work and admired the quality of journalism that follows. What’s more, African journalists use British precedents to push their governments to repeal draconian media laws, most of which were enacted by British colonial governments in efforts to suppress free speech during struggles for independence.By Erick Kabendera and Haruna Kanaabi, March 23, 2013, The Guardian

Indeed Britain has always been, and continues to be, our point of reference in defence of unregulated media and freedom of speech. We have always respected the level of tolerance in Britain for what would be regarded in our countries as excesses of the media, and its ability to handle situations in a civilised way without resorting to the harsh measures journalists suffer in our countries.

It is for these reasons that we are concerned by the decision to introduce statutory press regulation in Britain after almost 300 years of unregulated media. This is likely to have far reaching implications beyond the UK’s borders, with repercussions felt in countries that have always looked for any opportunity to restrict the work of journalists.

Indirectly the UK could send a message to African governments that statutory media regulation is now the way to go. This is a gift many African governments will receive with open hands and act accordingly.

The Ugandan government, for instance, is making no efforts to repeal restrictive laws left by the British under the pretext of creating a responsible media. Indeed stricter amendments are proposed to discipline errant journalists; in addition, there have been attacks on journalists by security agencies.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Kenya, the activities of foreign journalists have caused disquiet in certain powerful quarters, and moves to restrict them cannot be ruled out when a new government takes office.

Journalists in Tanzania face continuous harassment by state security organs on the pretext of implementing media laws. Two journalists have been killed in two years and one disappeared mysteriously.

A journalist was blown up by a police officer who fired a teargas canister in his stomach at close range for allegedly “asking the police too many questions” at a rally by an opposition political party. Earlier this month, a newspaper editor, Absalom Kibanda, was attacked allegedly by security personnel, his nails and teeth pulled out and his eye pierced with a sharp object. He is currently still hospitalised in South Africa.

Such incidents coupled with draconian historic media laws – enacted by the British colonial government in efforts to deal with independence movements – have made journalism in Tanzania a risky job. A media bill requiring bloggers, journalists and publishers to be licensed will soon be tabled in parliament.

The discussion in Britain on press regulation is likely to justify the passing of such laws in East Africa, since most of the decisions are based on the British legacy. Furthermore, the British government understands that its commitment to promote democracy in Africa relies heavily on independent media without which efforts to expose corruption practices will suffer.

Also suffering will be the UK’s reputation as a promoter of non-statutory media regulations. Efforts by the African media to develop non-statutory mechanisms to promote quality, responsibility and guarantee independence will endure serious setbacks.

While the British press argues about whether to submit or not to the requirements of the royal charter, we African journalists are worried about the consequences of this decision, particularly about its potential to set off a wave of more restrictive media laws and regulations.

Our great anxiety, ultimately, is that we might lose our great point of reference, our guide, in our ambitions to build democratic societies where we can speak without fear of consequences.

* Erick Kabendera is a freelance Tanzanian journalist and Haruna Kanaabi is the executive secretary of Independent Media Council of Uganda

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