South Africa's secrecy bill puts press freedom all over Africa at risk


African media campaigners say South Africa's secrecy bill is part of a continent-wide pattern of political desire to clamp down on the freedom of press, a development with implications far beyond South Africa's own borders.

Africa already has some of the world's worst offenders against press freedom. Eritrea is described by the as the most censored country in the world, ahead of North Korea and Syria, while neighbouring Ethiopia stands accused of systematically using its anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent. Eleven journalists were charged with terrorist activities in 2011 alone, including the award-winning Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who is facing the death penalty for criticising the government.

Rwanda stands accused of increasing repression against journalists. References to Rwanda's genocidal past are frequently used to silence the media. In 2011 at least 18 journalists fled the country.

In Uganda, still regarded by many as one of the more progressive democracies in , journalists accuse the government of controlling social networking to stem the free flow of information.

"Uganda is a country with a beautiful constitution which protects freedom of expression – the problem is that the government has put in place laws that contradict the constitution," said Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, programme co-ordinator for the Human Rights Network Uganda. "Now social media is under attack – the government has censored and tried to block Facebook, to the point where many people now see it as an irrelevant platform."

Experts say events last year north of the Sahara, with the Arab spring spilling across the Maghreb, have made matters worse in some African countries. "This year we did find a slight decline in the overall level of press freedom on the continent," said Karin Karlekar, director of the Freedom of the Press 2012 project. "This occurred for several reasons [including] the reaction to the Arab spring uprisings. News reports of the uprisings were restricted in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, for example."

Campaigners say these countries, and others including Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Gambia will draw strength from South Africa's retreat from democratic principles.

"South Africa is a key player in the region, both economically and politically speaking, and is deeply involved in seeking solutions to crises plaguing other regional countries, for example Zimbabwe, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Levi Kabwato of the .

"It is a country of immense influence and our key concern is that what happens in can be used as easy justification for policies and actions in other countries. There is a real danger that these developments will greatly affect and frustrate the regional media law reform drive that seeks to do away with all draconian laws," Kabwato added.

activists in other parts of Africa are frustrated at the failure of campaigners against the South Africa secrecy bill to join forces with the rest of the continent.

"There is a 'disconnect' between South Africa and the rest of Africa – South Africa is very much seen as a country out there on its own, apart from the rest of Africa," said Maxwell Kadiri, a Nigerian human rights lawyer and press freedom activist. "There is a sense that people on the continent feel we all contributed to the struggle against apartheid, and yet, post-apartheid, we haven't seen that level of support being provided from this end to other parts of the continent."

As pressure mounts on the government of South Africa to abandon the bill, there is an opportunity for other Africans to use the momentum to effect greater change. "There is so much to be gained by creating an active network of support across the continent, particularly when it comes to raising hell over government actions that seek to restrict media freedoms," Kadiri said.