MRA’s Executive Director Canvasses Adoption of Countervailing Measures to Address Shrinking Civic Space in West Africa

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Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)
Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and Board Chair of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has canvased the adoption of countervailing measures to respond to the new reality of shrinking civic space, especially the right to freedom of expression, in the West African sub region.

Edetaen canvased this position in his welcome address at the opening ceremony of the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) 2019, convened by MFWA and held at the Swiss Spirit Alisa Hotel in Accra, the Ghanaian capital on October 17, 2019.

In his address, he asked: “how we can better protect media freedom and freedom of expression in our region? He pointed out that in recent times, there has been a noticeable regression or rolling back of the progress that has been made in the last few decades.  This, the governments are doing with their adoption of legislative measures and administrative practices to shrink civic space in many countries.

He cited Nigeria as an example where he said, “the onslaught on the media and on journalists has been relentless and we are now routinely assaulted with images of journalists in handcuffs, charged with treason and terrorism for simply doing their jobs and treated worse than the actual terrorists.”

This situation, he warned, will gradually spread across the region given the tendencies of the governments of the sub region to share “worst practices” and borrow ideas from each other about how to repress their citizens.

He said the loss of global leadership from western countries in the promotion and defence of freedom of expression has largely freed governments ion the sub region “from the fear that they will be challenged internationally for their negative human rights practices and some of them are becoming quite lawless.”

The theme of this year’s WAMECA conference was “Social Media, Fake News and Elections in Africa” which theme he said was appropriate, relevant and topical, “given the issues confronting the continent at this point in time, particularly the decline in media freedom and professionalism in many countries in this region and across the continent.”

He noted that social media is a relatively new phenomenon but one thing that is giving political leaders sleepless nights across the region and beyond. This situation Edetaen added has been exacerbated by the fact that number of Internet users in many countries in the region has grown over the years with the result that a new class of citizens has also emerged in such countries.  Continuing, he said “these citizens are increasingly interested in public policy issues and have become quite engaged and vocal in the political arena.  They engage online, leaning heavily on social media platforms.”

The situation made it convenient for African governments to shut down the Internet at will with the genesis of internet shut down in Africa by a government being the 2011 Internet shutdown ordered by then Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, who, threatened by anti-government protests largely organized and sustained through social media, ordered a shutdown of the Internet.

Today, Edetaen noted, “Internet shutdowns have become the weapon of choice for many African leaders and the practice has become rampant throughout the continent.”

 In fact, the situation, according to him, appears to have worsened in recent times with the result that in the past four years, no less than 22 African countries are reported to have experienced partial or total Internet shutdown ordered by their governments. He pointed out that: “This is an issue that should clearly worry all of us.”

Edetaen also pointed out that in November 2016, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, then Chairperson and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, sponsored the “Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa”, which was adopted by the Commission as Resolution 362, wherein the Commission expressed concern about “the emerging practice of State Parties (to the African Charter) of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections”. Despite this, he said, the practice of Internet shutdown did not abate in Africa.

The notion of fake news, he said, was paradoxical because the political class routinely deals and trade in fake news, which they deploy as part of their campaign strategies, but has also become so frenetic about the issue that it has become the excuse for every attack on the media and all efforts to repress media freedom.

Edetaen acknowledged that, unfortunately, some media professionals have allowed themselves to be used to spread false news adding, there can be no doubt that any journalist guilty of such conduct is unworthy of being called a journalist.

He called on media stakeholders to denounce such conduct and make it clear that such has no place in the body of principles and values that guide our profession. Edetaen however argued that politicians bear the greater responsibility for this phenomenon as, according to him, no journalist has any real incentive to concoct or spread false news, although some of them have apparently been corrupted to do so.  He disclosed that the politicians see fake news as an avenue to gain an advantage over their political opponents or in some cases, to completely destroy their opponents.