Political Bloggers, much to the chagrin of a few paranoid folks who prefer to silence dissent or bitter facts, play an important role in spreading information and diversity of opinion on current affairs, politics, civil rights, rule of law, constitutionalism, and a whole range of governance issues in Africa.
This has increasingly made them a target, threatening a new emerging space for free expression.
On June 22, 2017, I joined my colleague Ruth Aine to review trends, opportunities and threats related to political blogging in Africa at the Speakers’ Corner during Konrad Adenuer Stiftung’s 3rd annual Uganda Social Media Conference. (Watch highlights here).
It is a fact that Africa has enjoyed remarkable developments in the media landscape over the past few years. That said, mainstream media – for several reasons – continues to punch below its weight as a critical pillar for democracy.
Censorship, outright silencing of voices and opinions, and the death of the good old investigative journalism are things we have to contend with today.
At the backdrop of all these challenges is the rapid growth of Internet distribution on the continent and the race to connect that has dramatically increased numbers of blogs. Armed with such unprecedented powerful tools, citizens have taken to the digital spaces to seek information and speak out their minds.
Beyond micro-blogging on social media platforms, bloggers are publishing well-researched instructive posts and shaping their opinions with context.
When Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in protest of confiscation of his goods at the genesis of the Arab Spring, bloggers stepped up to cover the story in their perspectives. They stayed the course to blog the entire revolution, often at the cost of harassment and braving the stinging fumes of teargas, bullets and all that comes with chaos and speaking truth to power.
In Kenya, within hours of the 2008 turmoil in the post-election violence, bloggers were posting hour-by-hour reports of events.
When President Robert Mugabe muzzled the press during the recent national crisis, political bloggers ensured the world was informed of developments in Zimbabwe.
In South Africa, the #FeesMustFall social justice movement was blogged with powerful effect.
Across the continent, the blogosphere has emerged as the major source of news, especially when the mainstream media is restricted, gagged or shutdown. Prominent bloggers are increasingly becoming influential agenda setters capable of influencing media coverage.
But this has come at heavy price in many countries. Political bloggers increasingly find themselves in trouble for their writings. The threats are real. The fact is that there are people out there who don’t want certain things to be told.
In Ethiopia, for example, the Zone 9 bloggers paid a heavy price for blogging about human rights in the country and publishing messages from political prisoners. After being arrested in April 2014, they were slapped with terrorism and inciting violence charges. They had to endure 439 days in jail only for the charges to be dropped.
We now know that the Ethiopian Supreme Court ruled on April 2017 that two of the bloggers – Atnaf Berhane and Natnail Feleke – should be charged with inciting violence for their writing – an offence that attracts up to 10 years in jail, if found guilty.
In Tanzania, my colleague and a blogger on Africa Blogging platform recently expressed fears of blogging citing threats to free expression under President Magufuli’s government prompting an open letter urging him not to stop. Recently, an opposition leader was arrested for calling President Magufuli a dictator.
Here in Uganda, in a cowardly incident, blogger and journalist Gertrude Tumusiime Uwitware was kidnapped and tortured by unknown assailants a few days after she penned a critical blog supporting Stella Nyanzi’s call for the fulfilment of the sanitary towels Presidential pledge.
Although her safe return is welcome, its concerning that the perpetrators have never been brought to book.
These threats to the right to freedom of speech online and limited adherence to democratic principles and rule of law continue to shape opinions in Africa’s blogosphere.
As observed by Winnie Watera during the social media conference after my presentation of 16 randomly selected articles from Africa Blogging, most posts – although acknowledge some positives – largely paint a grim picture of the continent.
The threats that continue to wreck the mainstream media are insidiously and gradually finding their way into democratized spaces online. Increasingly, bloggers have to check what they write or risk facing the wrath of the establishment.
Some bloggers have opted to blog anonymously by using pseudonyms to conceal their identity for safety reasons. And even then, attempts have been made to uncover their identities through legal proceedings and arbitrary arrests of innocent individuals, such as Robert Shaka in Uganda.
The right to freedom of speech, offline or online, is a fundamental freedom that forms the bedrock of democratic societies. An attack on media freedoms and freedom of expression is an attack on democracy.
We need more voices online to blog our daily struggles and successes, partisan and neutral political views, civil rights, and all current affairs that will make our societies better democracies where freedoms are respected for all.