Popular support for media freedom in Africa has dropped to below half of adults, according to a latest survey conducted by Afrobarometer.
In the sixth of its Pan-Africa Profiles series based on recent public-opinion surveys in 34 African countries, Afrobarometer reports that media freedom supporters are now outnumbered by those who believe governments should have the right to prevent publications they consider harmful.
Declines in support for unfettered media were recorded in 25 of 31 countries tracked since 2011, including steep drops in Tanzania (-33 percentage points), Cabo Verde, Uganda, and Tunisia. “While many Africans believe that media in their countries have more freedoms today than they did several years ago, this is more often seen as problematic than as progress, the data suggest,” reads part of the report.
The new report also analyzes Africans’ news habits, showing that radio remains ahead of television as the most widely accessed source of news. “Use of the Internet and social media as news sources is expanding, but a large digital divide still disadvantages poorer, less-educated, older, rural, and female citizens.
“Radio is still the most widely accessed source of news, followed by television, while newspaper readership remains relatively rare on the continent. Access to Internet and social media is expanding, with majorities in some countries reporting regular use. However, there is a large digital divide: Access to digital sources is much higher in some countries than others, and is skewed in favour of wealthier, better-educated, younger, urban, and male citizens.”
According to Afrobarometer, Africa, as elsewhere, mass media face increasing opportunities and threats. New technologies have made it easier for producers to share content widely and cheaply, resulting in a proliferation and diversification of information sources.
It says broader populations can access content more easily and cheaply than ever before – and contribute to those discussions themselves – through call-in programs on vernacular radio stations, Internet news sites and blogs, and social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter.
“On the flip side, new competition and access to cost-free content threaten media organizations’ bottom lines. Consumer skepticism of media actors has skyrocketed as more people see media as propagators of falsehoods, bias, and hate speech, particularly when messages are critical of politicians or policies they support. Politicians – in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes – are more than happy to stoke this anger, which provides opportunities for governments to launch increasingly brazen legal and extra-legal attacks on media.
Prominent media watchdogs, such as Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, have documented increases in government regulations, censorship, and even violence against media actors in Africa and around the world.
The latest round of the Afrobarometer survey raises a red flag for free-press advocates. “Popular support for media freedom – a majority view just three years ago – is now in the minority, exceeded by those who would grant governments the censor’s pencil.
“This warning flag also marks a paradox. On the one hand, many Africans believe that media in their countries have more freedoms today than they did several years ago. However, it is not clear that people view these developments positively. In fact, among citizens who see media freedoms as increasing in their country, those calling for increased government restrictions on media significantly outnumber those who support broad press freedoms.”
Afrobarometer notes that perhaps more encouragingly, those who see media freedoms as declining in their country are more likely to support freedoms than restrictions. “Either way, it appears that a substantial number of Africans are dissatisfied with the current state of the media in their country, at least with regard to the demand for and supply of freedoms.
“Even so, nearly all Africans turn to mass media for news.”