How media repression facilitated election manipulation in Gabon and Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe and Gabon, two countries with a history of protracted political dominance by one ruling party, held elections this week. These elections come against a recent military coup in Niger in July 2023 and a string of other military coups and attempted coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sierra Leone between 2020 to 2023.

In both countries voters are denied the right to make up their minds about who to support based on free and impartial information due to widespread media censorship and disinformation. The concerns about the restrictions on freedom of expression follow a worrying trend across Africa and threaten to undermine support for democracy on the continent, as they play a critical role in enabling the manipulation of elections in Africa.

So how did media (un)freedom undermine the credibility of elections in Gabon and Zimbabwe?

Media (un)freedom in Zimbabwe

The August 23 election in Zimbabwe was the second since Robert Mugabe was removed from power in a coup in 2017. Despite Mugabe’s departure, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party continues to govern, and its leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was recently declared to have won the 2023 general elections with 52% of the vote. Yet that victory was premised on an information landscape that was anything but free and fair, along with numerous other flaws.

Under former President Robert Mugabe’s leadership, press freedom in Zimbabwe was severely restricted. Independent journalists and media outlets often faced censorship, harassment, and even imprisonment for criticizing the government. Before the 2018 general elections – the first after Mugabe’s removal – President Emerson Mnangagwa promised credible elections and vowed that civil society actors would be allowed to observe the elections without intimidation. However, shortly after that promise, the government’s actions pointed to a different motive and a reenactment of the anomalies faced in the Mugabe years. For example, President Mnangagwa signed the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill in July 2022, commonly called the “Patriotic Bill,” despite heavy pushback from civil society. Analysts described the law as an attack on freedom of expression. In August, there were worrying reports of journalists barred from covering the ruling party’s campaigns.

Ahead of the 2023 elections, similar patterns persisted. From 2019 to 2022, the government restricted access to social media on several occasions amidst widespread protests against these and other draconian government policies. Such media censorship restricts essential public information and prevents journalists from uncovering anti-democratic actions within the government. At the same time, critical voices such as Hopewell Chin’ono have harassed – and detained – on the flimsiest of evidence. Journalists and poll observers have been intimidated, arrested, and detained without access to their lawyers, prompting alarm and criticism from the Southern Africa Development Community and the United States.

It is not hard to see why Zimbabwe occupies 126th position (out of 180 countries) on the World Press Freedom Index, a nine-point improvement from its 2022 position.

Now that Mnangagwa’s controversial victory has been formally declared, many Zimbabweans fear that the internet or social media could be shut down, a tactic that the government has used on previous occasions. This is an important reminder that in addition to undermining freedom of speech, restrictions on the media and on Internet access also constrain citizen’s freedom of association, denying them key information on the timing and location of meetings and protests.

Media (un)freedom in Gabon

Gabon held its Presidential elections on August 26. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon stood for reelection for the second time after taking over in 2009 from his father, Omar Bongo, the country’s second President for 41 years. Ali Bongo’s party, the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), holds a substantial majority in both legislative houses and has remained in power for over 55 years.

Throughout the PDG’s dominance in Gabonese politics, concerns about media freedom have been a constant. Civil society organizations have accused President Ali Bongo and his father of restricting media freedoms and manipulating elections. Last July, opposition candidates decried a sudden rule change by the electoral commission which meant that any vote for a local deputy would automatically be a vote for that deputy’s presidential candidate. Opposition groups have stated that this change confers an unfair advantage on the ruling party, and was purely intended to enable an unpopular president to remain in power.

Another concern in Gabon is the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few influential individuals closely aligned with the government. The leads to biased coverage, with far more positgive of the ruling party and far more negative coverage of the opposition. A credible election cannot take place against such a backdrop.

Additionally, journalists have been intimidated, primarily through summons by security agencies. Although the Gabonese constitution guarantees press freedom, media regulators continue to overreach. For example, in 2020, the government’s media regulator, the High Authority of Communication (HAC), suspended an independent media organization, Gabon Media Time, for ignoring a summons to attend an HAC meeting over a libel complaint.

Recently, the international media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), criticized the government for excluding journalists from the HAC and contradicting its convention of selecting two of the nine HAC members from the media. It is therefore hardly surprising that Gabon is ranked 94 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index, a position the media watchdog attributed to “overzealous sanctions imposed by the country’s media regulator.” 

Sadly, the 2023 general elections has seen a rapid deterioration in the media space. Against a backdrop of growing criticism of the way the polls were organized, and opposition complaints that the election was little more than a “fraud orchestrated by Ali Bongo and his supporters”, the government moved to cut off Internet access, while suspending French media outlets RFI and France 24.

This was part of a broader set of repressive measures including a curfew that the government justified on the basis of the need to avoid conflict, but is really motivated by a desire to prevent opposition supporters from expressing their displeasure at the way the election was manipulated. In this way, media repression plays a critical role both in government attempts to generate election results they want, and in preventing their underhand machinations from being revealed.

The road ahead

As the Gabonese citizens wait for the outcome of their elections, and Zimbabwean citizens hold their breath and hope that political crises can be averted, the actions of their governments have demonstrated that credible elections are not possible without media freedom.

In Zimbabwe’s case, there is an urgent need to revisit its outdated media laws and put guardrails in place to prevent the government from blocking and controlling social media platforms. Gabon must create an environment where journalists can report without fear of harassment or violence. Greater involvement of journalists in selecting the members of the HAC and freedom of journalists to report news without the fear of suspensions, even when critical of government policies, would also improve the situation.

Yet they are unlikely to do this while election observers place so little emphasis on media freedom in their evaluations. While all observation groups will refer to media freedom, a lack of media freedom is very rarely used as a reason to condemn an election. Yet without media freedom credible polls are not possible – and an election with the quality of media freedom in Gabon and Zimbabwe would be considered wholly unacceptable in many of the European and North American states that observers are drawn from.

It is time to end this double standard, not just to allow for credible elections, and defend democracy, but also to protect the rights of freedom of speech, thought and assembly that are so important to hopes, dreams and political aspirations of citizens.

Nkasi Wodu (@WoduNkasi) a Senior Fellow of the Aspen Institute, lawyer, and Doctoral Candidate of Global Governance and Human Security University of Massachusetts Boston, is the project coordinator of the Democracy Network, a 10-country project on increasing civic engagement in Africa.

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