From the early 1960s to the early 2000s, the professional practice of journalism in much of Africa was largely rooted in postcolonial structures and disseminated through communication spaces largely controlled by its governments. Such spaces, and especially the mediums of radio and television, were the primary hubs for public deliberation and political communication.
For example, governments throughout eastern and central Africa, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Tanzania, routinely adopted a paternalistic role in their country’s media system by being the arbiter of what information actually ‘informed’ public discourses, while excluding the information it deemed to be “detrimental to the safety of the broader polity and the citizenry.” They did (and some still do) so by establishing monitoring institutions and enacting media laws to curtail the free flow of information and offer a measure of soft (and sometimes, not so soft) power over journalists.
Beyond political power structures, journalism in many African countries is also heavily shaped by the economic conditions of those countries and the available infrastructure. For example, journalists in many African countries must seek second jobs or supplemental income, and there are often insufficient resources for in-depth, investigative reporting. Moreover, poor physical infrastructures can make it difficult to reach events in remote areas — though the rapid growth in digital infrastructures has been a boon for journalism in Africa.
In recent decades, journalism in many African countries has been severely restricted by laws that limit certain kinds of content or offer government officials large loopholes for denying journalists access to public information. For example, in Chad, Gambia, and Zimbabwe, media policy is routinely leveraged to dictate what the press can report on or what subjects can be discussed on current affairs talk shows, as well as who is allowed to own media companies. Those policies are often enforced selectively to exclude political speech by activists and members of opposition parties.
Similarly, the countries of Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi still leverage laws initially drawn up during the colonial era to criminalize journalistic attempts to expose political wrongdoing. They often do so under the guise of defamation and sedition laws. In particular, Zambia’s Section 53 of the Penal Code empowers the presidency to censor publications that it considers ‘contrary to the public interest,’ while its State Security Act enables officials to treat large swaths of government documents as classified documents through broad national security claims.
Zambia is not alone in this regard: Gambia and Zimbabwe have received very poor ratings for press freedoms in recent years because of their liberal use of frivolous charges of sedition and libel against journalists. Put another way, legal action, and charges of sedition and libel in particular, have become major and effective tools for controlling independent media in many African countries, and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Tanzania have drawn considerable attention in recent years because of politically related bans and suspensions imposed against traditional and online media that challenge its governments.
Additionally, in sub-Saharan African countries, including Eritrea, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the national government either dominates news media ownership or plays a major role in the economic sustainability of its media industries. For example, the Burundi government owns its main daily newspaper, its only national television station, and its only national radio station. While the country does have privately owned journalistic outlets, those outlets have limited reach and are sometimes only able to publish journalism irregularly.
It is important to note that some African countries, especially on the continent’s southern tip, do have open and generally free media systems. In fact, Namibia (southern Africa) and Ghana (western Africa) have better rankings in the World Press Freedom Index than the United States. However, the continent as a whole tends to place serious legal and structural constraints on what journalists can and cannot do.
Compared to other regions, relatively few journalists in Africa possess formal college degrees or formal training. In Tanzania, for example, there are still fewer than a dozen journalism schools in the entire country. Moreover, the cost of formal journalism training is unaffordable to many aspiring journalists in Africa, and media owners in Africa have historically offered little investment in training programs for its journalists (or for professional associations of journalists).
In many countries in western Africa, the majority of journalists work as freelancers, earning an average of $2.45 U.S. Dollars per day, according to data from 2011. That adds up to a monthly salary that is often below those countries’ minimum wage. Staff reporters often work without a contract and may thus perform their jobs with the fear of being replaced. In some countries, such as Ethiopia and Burundi, the wages of a full-time, mid-career journalist is roughly equal to that of an elementary school teacher.
A major consequence of these low salaries is that some journalists are more willing to accept so-called ‘brown envelopes,’ or bribes and gifts, in return for favorable coverage of political and business leaders. As such, adversarial and watchdog forms of journalism are not only legally risky but also economically disincentivized.
Over the past two decades, there have been concerted efforts to promote stronger professional ethics and to provide African journalists more resources to engage in independent journalism. These efforts have, by and large, been led by grassroots groups and the international community — but rarely by national governments. The international involvement, however, has raised questions about the potential ‘Westernizing’ of African journalism. Nevertheless, more African countries today have some form of media council or journalists’ union than ever before, which has helped raise journalistic standards and offered a stronger — though often still inadequate — counterbalance against government intervention.
Radio remains the primary medium for disseminating news in many parts of Africa. In particular, community radio stations are especially robust throughout the continent and have served as crucial tools for informing and mobilizing the public, especially in more rural areas that have lower literacy rates. Community radio has also proven to be one of the strongest counterbalances against largely concentrated media ownership in many African countries and against overt government influence over national media in places like Botswana and Tanzania.
Notably, the development of wireless digital technologies over the past two decades has transformed the media ecosystems in much of Africa. While wired broadband internet and cable television remains uncommon in large parts of the continent, the penetration of mobile devices and cell phone coverage has enabled more Africans to access major domestic and international media than ever before. While major digital divides still very much exist in the continent, they have been vastly reduced in recent years.
Moreover, the rapid proliferation of mobile internet has greatly expanded the reach of alternative (and opposition) media and enabled more participatory forms of journalism — which were previously uncommon. It is now quite common for newsrooms in eastern and southern Africa to actively solicit news tips and visuals from eyewitnesses, and incorporate them into their reporting. It is also increasingly common for journalists to publish more critical stories online under pseudonyms, and often through social media and blogs. Moreover, the proliferation of mobile payment systems has also made it easier for independent media to utilize crowdfunding as a business model.
Many countries in Africa still operate under highly restrictive legal environments, and it is not uncommon for journalists in some countries to be targeted under defamation and sedition laws, or for the government to exercise a heavy hand over news production.
It is economically challenging to do journalism in much of Africa, with journalistic labor often being unstable and poorly paid. It is not uncommon for journalists in Africa to seek out supplemental income or to be tempted by bribes in return for favorable coverage.
Radio remains the primary medium for delivering news in much of Africa, but the rapid development of mobile internet has significantly altered the continent’s media ecosystems.