With the recent release of its Freedom in the World 2014 report, global human rights NGO Freedom House paints an underwhelming picture for freedom and civil liberties across the world, and a blurry one in Africa. For the eighth consecutive year, the world has witnessed more declines than gains in political rights and civil liberties, with 54 countries showing declines and only 40 demonstrating improvements. At the close of 2013, Freedom House ranked 55% of the world’s countries as “non-free” or “partly free.”
“With major democratic breakthroughs in some countries, and coups, insurgencies, and authoritarian crackdowns in others,” sub-Saharan Africa represents both the best and worst in regard to the advancement of freedom. But mostly, the news is not good. Of the ten countries receiving Freedom House’s lowest rating (7) for both political and civil liberties, half are in Africa (Sudan, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Somalia). Over the past ten years, the number of African countries deemed “not-free” has increased by 6% (from 35% to 41%). And in the past five years, the continent has witnessed a decline in all seven categories of political and civil liberties measured by Freedom House, with the greatest decrease seen in freedom of expression and association. The latter is particularly worrisome given the significance that freedom of expression and assembly laws (FOAA) have for opposition groups, media, and civil society organizations, as well as the growing importance of civil society for democracy across Africa
In one example, Freedom House downgraded Uganda’s political rights score from 5 to a 6, likely the result of a new law restricting freedom of expression among Ugandan opposition and civil society groups. As various human rights organizations have noted, this Public Order Management Act is weakly justified by public security concerns and goes “well beyond the restrictions permitted under international and regional human rights law(s)…” to which Uganda has committed. Uganda’s rating may decrease further with the recent adoption of the anti-homosexuality act.
Zambia also received a downgrade for increasing enforcement of a similar law. Critics argue that the country’s Public Order Act is being abused, especially by police forces, to stifle opposition groups and break up public protests. Perhaps worse, the Zambian High Court dismissed a petition to review the law’s constitutionality last October.
And in December, the Kenyan parliament passed the Information and Communication Amendment Bill, which allows government tribunals to regulate all forms of free media and issue an unlimited number of fines against journalists and media organizations. The law was passed after Kenyan media released critical portrayals of the Kenyan Defense Forces looting at the Westgate mall shooting, and of President Kenyatta following his indictment by the ICC for crimes against humanity.
Though only anecdotal evidence is provided here, it is apparent that freedoms of expression and assembly face challenges across the African continent, even in countries where significant progress towards democratization has already been made. As Freedom House Africa director Vukasin Petrovic reminds us, “Freedom of expression, and especially a free media sector, are absolutely essential for a democracy to function.” I wholeheartedly agree. Do you?