Freedom House (FH), a United States NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, has pronounced Botswana’s media as “free” in its 2014 report. Whereas 1 represents “most free” and 7 “least free”, the country gets a score of 3 for political rights and 2 for civil liberties. All told, there are three categories: “free”, “partly free” and “not free” which are colour-coded on FH’s world press freedom map with green, yellow and purple respectively.
Courtesy of Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Mauritius and Lesotho, the Southern Africa region has the largest splotch of green in Africa. While Zimbabwe and Madagascar improved their political rights score from 6 to 5, their press is considered “not free” and “partly free” respectively.
Madagascar’s rating improved due to the holding of competitive and peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections that were deemed free and fair by international and regional observers. In Zimbabwe’s case, there was a decline in harassment and violence against political parties and opposition supporters during the 2013 elections. Perhaps SADC’s greatest disappointment is Zambia which scored 3 for political rights and 4 for civil liberties. The report says that the country “Zambia received a downward trend arrow due to the ruling party’s ongoing repression and harassment of the political opposition, including the increased use of the Public Order Act, hindering its ability to operate in general and to campaign in by-elections.”
The irony here is that even outside his fiefdom, Zambia’s president, Michael Sata, believes in the full use of his own freedom of speech. Sata’s foot was firmly stuck in his mouth from the first to the last day of his visit in Botswana, exorbitantly taxing the patience of his hosts. One very important point that FH makes in its report is that in some instances, its measurement is not accurate because 21st century dictators are becoming extremely slick as they adopt Western-style electoral politics to camouflage their autocracy. It terms this phenomenon “modern authoritarianism” and describes its practitioners in the following terms: “Such leaders devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.”
Central to the dictators’ strategy “is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the economy, and the security forces. While authoritarians still consider it imperative to ensure favourable electoral outcomes through a certain amount of fraud, gerrymandering, handpicking of election commissions, and other such rigging techniques, they give equal or even more importance to control of the information landscape, the marginalisation of civil society critics, and effective command of the judiciary.”
FH says that this level of deception explains “the seemingly contradictory trends in Freedom in the World scores over the past five years.” The report also draws up the profile of modern-day dictator. He is a nasty piece of work “who uses the political legitimacy of a popular vote to abuse power, enrich allies, and annihilate the opposition.” He works to amass personal power and win over “rural and low-income voters with populist rhetoric and economic enticements.” He has “clearly formed alliances” with his kind in order to advance common goals.
“They have studied how other dictatorships were destroyed and are bent on preventing a similar fate for themselves. At one level, a loose-knit club of authoritarians works to protect mutual interests at the United Nations and other international forums, subverting global human rights standards and blocking precedent-setting actions against fellow despots. More disturbingly, they collaborate to prop up some of the world’s most reprehensible regimes,” the report says.
One example that the report cites is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an of Turkey. The country leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists. In addition to jailing reporters, Erdo?an pressurises independent publishers to sell their holdings to government cronies, and threatens media owners with reprisals if critical journalists are not silenced.