As corruption thrives in the shadows, a free and independent media has a important role to play in the fight against corruption in the region.
The work of whistleblowers and investigative journalists is particularly important in this respect. By uncovering and exposing allegations media can support increased levels of transparency and scrutiny, as well as building pressure for accountability. In the era of digital media the opportunity for the press to act as a powerful tool in the fight against corruption is greater than ever before. However, a recent deterioration of media freedoms in the East Africa region now threatens to undermine efforts to stamp out the scourge.
Tanzania presents a particularly troubling case in this respect. President John Magufuli has taken a strong stand against corruption. In many cases he has backed his rhetoric with action, sacking a number of senior government figures as part of his crusade. Under Magufuli’s leadership Tanzania has seen an improvement in its transparency rankings, rising 18 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Index since 2015. However, the introduction of restrictive press legislation, such as the Media Services Act, media shutdowns and the alleged intimidation, attack and disappearance of several journalists in recent years has sparked concern.
Uganda is another cause for concern. The country dropped from 117th position to 125th in the 2019 global press freedom index. According to Reporters Without Borders intimidation and violence against journalists takes place on a daily basis and the security services are complicit in the targeting of press.
Social media has proved a powerful way for anti-corruption activists to share information, as well as to build networks and coalitions for change. Even when government has placed restrictions on traditional media, citizens are often able to publicise news and communicate through these platforms. However, in some instances governments have also sought to introduce restrictions in this arena. For example, in Uganda the 2016 election came with an internet shutdown. Since then the Ugandan government has also come under criticism for the introduction of a social media tax, which charges users of platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter 200 shillings daily.
The dissemination of false information, or ‘Fake news’ as it is called, has caused its own problems, undermining trust in independent outlets. Fake news has been used to try and discredit journalists, publications and anti-corruption activists that are working to expose corruption and can be used to misdirect attention for political purposes. News and fact checking sites are becoming increasingly important as a result.
Today, while the opportunity for media in East Africa to play a positive role in the fight against corruption has never been greater, it is not an easy time to be a journalist.