Freedom of Expression in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Beyond

Feb 3, 2017

Freelance journalist Ismail Einashe sees a dangerous backsliding of democracy and free media in sub-Saharan Africa, alongside an increase in Internet access and the influence of foreign media organizations. Two weeks into the new administration, are there parallels in the United States?

ALEX WOODSON: Hello. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm here with Ismail Einashe, a freelance journalist based in London. He is a columnist for the International Business Times and a contributing editor at Warscapes. He has reported for The Guardian, Index on Censorship, BBC, and many other outlets. Ismail is also a 2017 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has written about African migrants, radicalization in Europe, human rights and conflict in Africa, among other subjects.

Thanks so much for coming, Ismail.


ALEX WOODSON: Today Ismail will be talking about new media and freedom of expression in Africa.

Just to be clear, we'll be talking about sub-Saharan Africa, so if we use the term "Africa" in this podcast, that's what I mean.

Ismail, you've been reporting for how many years in Africa?

ISMAIL EINASHE: I've been reporting probably since about 2012.

ALEX WOODSON: Just in that time, what have you seen change? I know it hasn't been too long, but I'm sure you've seen some things change from 2012.

ISMAIL EINASHE: I think I've seen a number of changes since then. I think the most important change—not just in the sense of freedom of expression, freedom of the press in Africa, but more broadly democracy and freedom in Africa—is that there has been a decline in countries that are classed as democracies, and there has been a rise in censorship across the continent.

If you look at Freedom House, based in the United States, they have been of course monitoring progression in terms of democracy across the world and focusing on Africa. The research they've shown is that the kind of increases that you saw in the early 2000s in Africa in terms of democracies—moving towards leaders who had been there for a long time stepping down, multi-party kinds of systems, free elections, fair elections—that changed. I think that's a big back story which sets the scene for where press freedoms have been.

Probably in the last two to three years I've been reporting for Index on Censorship, which is a global quarterly which covers issues of freedom of expression and censorship across the world. I've been focused largely on Africa, looking particularly in East Africa. What I've seen there is incidents of attacks on journalists directly, on journalist safety; but also, more broadly, attacks through the legal system. So we've seen in places like Kenya there have been attempts by the Kenyan authorities to use legislation as a means, for example, to stifle free press. That, unfortunately, is a practice repeated from Kenya to Ethiopia, and even places like South Africa, which has a very developed media environment.

I don't know much about South Africa, but, for example, South Africa is a place that I've been reading about and I've got colleagues and friends there who are journalists. Again, somewhere like that, which in recent years has been one of the more freer places for the media, has also experienced increased censorship over the last few years.

ALEX WOODSON: To speak about it specifically, I know you've done a lot of reporting about Ethiopia. You wrote an article last month, in early January, about Ethiopia, how it's on lockdown basically. Is that still the case in Ethiopia?

ISMAIL EINASHE: Ethiopia is one of the countries I focus on. The situation, as you say, is that it is still in a state of lockdown. I wrote a piece for Index on Censorship which was looking at the recent protests in Ethiopia which have been led by Ethiopia's Oromo community. They are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, about a third of Ethiopia's 100 million population. Actually, Oromos are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa.

For the last few years they have been demonstrating across Ethiopia, in part because of an urban development plan for the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, which is surrounded by Oromia State. In Ethiopia you have nine ethnically based states, and Oromia, which is home to the Oromos, surrounds Addis Ababa entirely. The Oromo community has been very unhappy about that development plan that the government of Ethiopia has been trying to implement, which includes developing the city, the infrastructure, and so on.

They have said that the Ethiopian state has actually used that as a pretext to attack Oromo identity. The long history of Ethiopia has really been one where the Oromos have been marginalized and they have complained about cultural/political marginalization. That kind of history really brings us to what has been going on in the last two years. The piece that I wrote described that history. But also, it is specifically around the media and the role that the media plays.

In Ethiopia, if you look at the Committee to Protect Journalists, other kinds of indexes, other kinds of journalistic organizations, Ethiopia is actually one of the less free countries in Africa in terms of the media.

And not just with the current Oromo protests, which have spread across Ethiopia and are still ongoing—that's why Ethiopia is still in a state of lockdown; there are military on the ground, curfews and so on—but also, for the last several years Ethiopia has most famously—there's a case of Zone 9 bloggers, a collective of bloggers who were based in Addis Ababa. They were young people who came together after a quite-well-known newspaper was shut down in Ethiopia. That's probably the last kind of free paper that was there.

So you see that history continue. Unfortunately, Ethiopia, being Africa's second-largest country in terms of population and increasing to be very important economically, has really declined quite substantially in terms of the free press.

ALEX WOODSON: One thing that I've noticed in America, especially with the last election—maybe this could tie into Ethiopia or some of these other countries that you say are backsliding a little bit—is several years ago, 10 years ago maybe, there was this idea that new media, the Internet, would have a democratizing effect on media. But in some cases I feel like the opposite has happened—illiberal voices are more able to influence online discussions; government and corporations can track them more easily; people with money have access.

Do you think that the new media landscape has affected this democracy backsliding that you've seen in some of these countries?

ISMAIL EINASHE: I think that's a really interesting question. I think that's probably the case, not just in Ethiopia or in Africa, but across the world. I think new media—digital technology, social media platforms—provide both an opportunity for that expansion of free speech and freedom of expression, but also allows states and others to curtail and to actually stifle freedom of speech and free expression.

I think in the case of Ethiopia what you have seen is—let's look at a couple of things. Ethiopia, for example, is 100 million people, but very few people in Ethiopia have mobile phones. Mobile phones are quite ubiquitous in Africa now. I remember being in Addis Ababa a few years back and trying to buy a SIM card. Now, a SIM card is a relatively straightforward, very easy thing to purchase if you're in Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria—wherever you are in Africa—it's actually as easy as getting a bottle of Fanta—but, unfortunately, in Ethiopia it's very difficult because the state makes it very difficult. So in somewhere like Ethiopia the penetration of mobile phones is very low, Internet penetration is very low.

That's why Zone 9 bloggers were really unique. They used social media because that was the only way out to get information in Ethiopia. So they actually created a Facebook group. That was, I think, the first incarnation of that kind of collective. They eventually shut down the collective and many of their members were arrested and so on, and it caused a lot of international uproar.

Just to come back to the other point about does it benefit freedom of speech and expression or does it hinder, I think it depends where you are. In places like Ethiopia, you could argue that it helps because Facebook allows people to connect. But also, in places like Kenya, what you've seen is the state use laws to stop journalists who are sharing information, for example, through WhatsApp. There have been a few cases of that in the last year in Kenya.

ALEX WOODSON: What are some specific examples of that that you can share with us?

ISMAIL EINASHE: The Kenyan authorities have been clamping down on journalists, in particular, covering the war that Kenya is currently engaged in with al-Shabaab, which is the Somalia-based al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group.

A few months ago, I interviewed Yassin Juma, who is a well-known veteran investigative reporter in Kenya. There was an attack at a Kenyan security forces base inside Somalia by al-Shabaab in which a number of Kenyan soldiers were killed. Yassin Juma, who is Kenyan himself but a Muslim Kenyan, was known for the reports he has been doing for many years inside Somalia and has very reliable sources. He reported that effectively such a number of Kenyan security forces had been killed by al-Shabaab. That contradicted official statements coming out from the Kenyan security services and from the Kenyan government. He had also shared information online, as had another blogger, another journalist, on WhatsApp, about these al-Shabaab attacks on Kenyan security forces.

What happened was that he was effectively shut down. He was arrested, kept in a police cell, and was, I think, charged with misuse of a telecommunication gadget.

What we see in Kenya is that the Kenyan government is using both the law and redefining the law in terms of attacking journalists, such as Yassin Juma and others, who are reporting facts that contradict official narratives.

ALEX WOODSON: Is this a situation in Kenya that has started because of the increase of terrorist attacks, or was the environment like that before in Kenya?

ISMAIL EINASHE: Kenya has historically had one of the better media landscapes in Africa in terms of a free press. It's got a very healthy press.

But what I think changed, from the reports I've done and the people I've spoken to on the ground, is the advent of digital technology. So people are able to get to information much more quickly; people are able to verify things much more quickly. And also, there is a capacity for authorities to trace people. If you are sharing things on WhatsApp, if you're on Viber, if you're on Facebook, if you're on Twitter, as a journalist or a blogger in Kenya engaging in this very difficult issue for Kenya, which is this war with al-Shabaab—because it has a kind of foreign policy dimension because Kenya is a neighbor to Somalia, but also has a domestic implication because Kenya has a large Somali population and Muslim population and the Kenyan authorities are sort of waging a war in their country against Islamic radicalization and jihadism.

So what has really changed is the ways in which news is delivered and how that kind of delivery aspect of the news is now much more able to be monitored.

The final thing I'll say quickly is that also the confidence that the state has in Kenya to pursue people.

ALEX WOODSON: So they have the confidence—is that because they know that the public is behind them, or is it something else?

ISMAIL EINASHE: I think what you've seen in Kenya over the last many years is the increase in corruption, the increase in the state destabilizing, and the current government—the president, who is the son of the founder of Kenya, was, for example, wanted in The Hague.

I think what you are seeing is the government becoming more rogue, in short, and that is what has led to the kind of situation where there is this cover the government has now in terms of feeling confident to be able to pursue journalists that tell a message that they don't like.

ALEX WOODSON: Another story that has gotten a lot of attention is the influence of Chinese media on Africa. This was something that I researched a few years ago. I'm assuming that some of the same things hold true today.

There's a CPJ article from 2012, which highlighted the ways that Chinese media is different than Western media, the American media, the British media. That kind of dovetails with what some African governments believe too. They write in 2012: "Nearly all African governments tend to agree with their Chinese counterparts that the press should focus on collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather than report so-called 'negative' news."

Does that make sense to you?

ISMAIL EINASHE: It does. I think that is, unfortunately, what has happened over the last decade in Africa. You've seen, unfortunately, under Barack Obama's presidency a retreat from Africa. Arguably, George W. Bush was a better president for Africa in terms of engagement, both in terms of HIV prevention and in terms of interest. That vacuum which has been created by Obama, the last president—Barack Obama, who many saw as sort of "the son of Africa," with his father of course being Kenyan—has created a space, and China has filled that.

In places like Ethiopia, China is enormously influential. China has, for example, built sub-Saharan Africa's first metro rail system in Ethiopia. In fact, they also built and donated the headquarters of the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the African people on behalf of the Chinese people.

So when the Chinese media and the Chinese broadcasters and their attitude as to what constitutes news and what journalists should do and that has been followed, as an example, by African states, that doesn't surprise me because the moral example that America may have had has slipped. Many African countries, for both good historical reasons but also bad historical reasons, no longer want to take moral hectoring kind of lectures from the West.

I think that is a tragedy for the people on the ground. Unfortunately, that kind of media, which is about glorifying the benefits of whatever particular projects a particular country is engaged in or a particular president, it's not really journalism. I think, unfortunately, that helps dictators and those who want to cling on to power.

ALEX WOODSON: What does Chinese media really look like in Ethiopia? You have the case in the United States where you have RT. I've heard that a lot of people watching RT don't really know that it's Russian state-owned television. Is that kind of similar to the way China runs its media operations in Ethiopia and other countries?

ISMAIL EINASHE: Africa has actually, interestingly, become a bit of a media battleground. China is definitely one of the more increasing players. CCTV is the Chinese state-sponsored broadcaster. They have operations all across Africa, they have correspondents who are Africans, and they are engaged very much in terms of reporting particularly the role of China, because China is now very influential from Zambia, to Nigeria, to Ethiopia, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of raw materials and so on.

But Africa over the last few years has also become, as I was saying, a kind of playground for foreign media. So it's not just the Chinese with their broadcasts on CCTV. It's also the Turks with TRT; it's also the Iranians with Press TV; it's also, of course, Al Jazeera. Historically, there's the BBC, which still remains, in terms of radio at least, the kind of "go-to" kind of media for Africans. But, increasingly, the media landscape has changed, it's shifting.

China, I think, is sort of twinning its foreign policy strategy with its media operation. I think that helps the Africans. I think, whether you're in Ethiopia or Kenya or elsewhere, the ways in which the Chinese state media engages with Africa is much more welcome than the ways in which Western media engages with Africa.

Another thing I should add to that is there is good reason why some Africans feel that. For many decades, Africans have felt that Western media has done their usual tropes for Africa—the war, famine, disease, instability—and people are sort of tired of that.

ALEX WOODSON: Another Western company that is really making an impact, or trying to make an impact, in Africa is Facebook. We were talking last week about how they are basically trying to get Internet for the whole continent. That sounds like a gigantic project. I'm not sure how realistic it is.

I'm sure you must have mixed feelings about that, just based on what we were talking about before. What would you tell Facebook if they were asking an African reporter or a person of African descent reporting, "What should we be looking for when we're doing this project?"

ISMAIL EINASHE: The thing is it's unfortunate, but without Facebook many Africans might not be connected. What Facebook has attempted to do is quite ambitious, but also, no doubt, has business long-term strategic kind of value, because Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world and it has a very young population—yes, in terms of consumer capacity and buying power, they're not as important as a Brit or Italian.

But nonetheless, I think Facebook is interesting in terms of the way in which it is seeing this as almost a kind of social corporate responsibility. I do think, increasingly, having the right to access the online world, the Internet, is a human right and we have to allow people to be connected. But I am dubious also, because I am concerned about the kind of commercial aspects of this.

In terms of the perspective of an African—I am diaspora but I am Somali; I spent time in Africa—I think the most important thing is to create a space where Africans can have their own conversations and lead their own conversations without interference of others.

ALEX WOODSON: Let's switch topics a little bit. We're in the United States, I think on day 12 of the Trump administration. As someone who has reported on places like Ethiopia and Kenya, where freedom of speech is a real issue, are you seeing anything right now—

ISMAIL EINASHE: Are you asking am I seeing parallels?

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. Are you seeing any signs that you're a little bit more attuned to than someone like me, someone who works for CNN, who works for The New York Times, for whom it might just be, "Oh, this is a little strange but I'm just going to do my job." Is there anything that you have seen that is making you a little worried about the landscape here?

ISMAIL EINASHE: Yes. I think before I mention African countries I should mention Italy. I spend quite a bit of time in Italy because I've been reporting on the refugee migrant crisis on Europe's borders for some years and I spent time in Sicily and Rome, and I am due to go back there shortly.

Italy is a really good example actually when you look at Berlusconi and the ways in which he shifted the conversation in Italy. He was, of course, a populist—not that dissimilar to Mr. Trump, you would argue—and his influence, in terms of he was himself a media tycoon in Italy, and the way in which he engaged in the public space and over many years corrupted good journalism in Italy. That's now recovering. There are still parts of Italian media which are good and did resist over those periods in which Berlusconi was the prime minister.

Now, with the situation in the United States—we are here in New York—we have seen the kind of conversation that this administration has been having about the media. The statements Steve Bannon, his special advisor, has come out with about the media—I think he called it "the opposition party"—is that right?


ISMAIL EINASHE: Mr. Trump calls journalists "the most dishonest people in the world."

You have the Constitution in the United States. That protects you. But, having been in countries like Italy and Ethiopia and other places, I'd be cautious. Those protections only go so far. Journalists have to be vigilant. Often, when there are populists or those in positions of authority who have messages that don't sit well without a fundamental sense of what rights are, I think we have to be vigilant. I think we have to also recognize that in this age that we are in that the way to respond—it's not to hector or to preach—is to do good journalism, to report.

The final thing I'd also say is I think it's also up to citizens, because it's not just about the people who are making the news, or producing the news, or writing the news, or whatever; it's about the consumers. People have to be more critical. They have to get better informed. In a place like Italy, you definitely saw a situation where Berlusconi disrupted what was fact and what was not fact and confused the public debate. So I think Americans—I would hope—would avoid that kind of situation.

ALEX WOODSON: One other thing to touch on is the travel ban. Just speaking broadly, the ban wasn't put into place for any reason connected to media, as I can see. But what could be the effects of it on media if it is held up as it is today?

ISMAIL EINASHE: The ban President Trump announced last Friday with an executive order banning [citizens from] seven Muslim-majority countries for up to 90 days—which, by the way, could become permanent, and other countries could be added to that list—I think is, obviously, very dangerous, and there is no rationale for that cause of action, and that policy will not protect this country here or abroad.

I think there is definitely a consequence for journalists. Journalists who come from those seven countries who may want to come to the United States are now no longer able to. Anybody who is a dual national or considered a dual national of those seven countries, who has, say, a Dutch or a French passport, who is a journalist may not be able to come to the United States.

I think, more importantly and more critically, the most significant thing about this ban and what's happening right now in the United States is it sends a bad message on freedom of expression and on the free press and respecting that across the world. America was a beacon on this. America led the charge across the world on this.

In Africa, there has been a retreat under Obama, so the space has been taken up by China. That's why states in Africa are listening to China now. So when Obama went to Africa—I think it was 2015—and he spoke at the African Union—I think he was the first American president to do so—I think most African leaders then, in 2015 when President Obama spoke to them, sort of nodded their heads, gave him the respect that he deserved as being the leader of the free world, as he was then, and chose to ignore him.

I think if this administration continues in this same vein of attacking the free press and attacking journalists here and abroad, unfortunately, we will see a slide across the world. If America is not providing the moral leadership that we need, then unfortunately, I think, you will see other states take actions. It will embolden dictators. It will give people the confidence to say, "I'm going to shut that newspaper down in Ethiopia," "I'm going to stop that magazine in Tanzania." I think that's a bad message for Africa and for the world.

ALEX WOODSON: Very true.

Thank you so much for coming, Ismail.


ALEX WOODSON: This is Alex Woodson from the Carnegie Council. Thank you for listening.

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