The Winding Road of Press Freedom and Democracy

For many citizens of the United States, their rights to the freedom of speech, and more notably the freedom of press, exists without question. The struggle for freedom of speech, however, is not as straightforward as it seems. And the ever-evolving world of global media, press, and policymaking turn the path of free press to a winding one.  

Meghan Sobel Cohen, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Communication at Regis University, explores this changing landscape in her newest book Press Freedom and the (Crooked) Path Toward Democracy: Lessons from Journalists in East Africa, published this past year with Oxford University Press.  

The book itself quantifies research beginning in 2016, co-authored with Karen McIntyre, Ph.D., of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Together, Cohen and McIntyre worked with African scholars to create a framework to analyze the evolution of press freedom in historically restricted countries. Specifically the press aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide which targeted the minority Tutsi ethnic group and resulted in more than 800,000 deaths in the country.

In a Q and A, Cohen describes the experiences and the culmination of her work on Press Freedom. 

What in your research background brought you to East Africa? 

I have always been interested in media and its power to shape public perceptions and actions both positively and negatively. I gained interest in how media functions in varying political landscapes, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Media is said to have played a large role; unfortunately. So called “journalists” utilized largely radio to put forward hate speech that perpetuated the genocide. It was a dark time in media history. Rwanda is a very fascinating place for a lot of reasons. Since the genocide, there has been remarkable development progress in a short period of time, in comparison to other countries, and wondering if media had played a role in the progres started my research in East Africa. I started largely in 2016 and continued that research with Karen Mcintyre and then branched out to Uganda and Kenya, that have in some ways similarities and differences to Rwanda. And so, I was trying to understand the media landscape in those countries, and how it affects various aspects of society.   

What about press freedom, specifically in East Africa, drew your attention?   

Press freedom is a really interesting concept. In the U.S. we talk a lot about press freedom, the First Amendment, and free expression; in some ways we have a ton of that, but you can also think about the complexities and hiccups in this country and we can try to understand what that looks like in other places. There are many organizations that try to “measure” press freedom, using ranking and metrics. Almost all of those organizations say that Rwanda has very little press freedom. But, if you talk to journalists in Rwanda, they say it’s not that they can’t write critically and don’t have press freedom, but that they want their role to be unifiers, as a move to right the wrongs of their predecessors. The notion of press freedom looking different leads to the idea that journalism looks different in different countries.   

In the academic world and developing communities, there is the assumption that press freedom develops in a linear fashion. Meaning a country will move from being “not free” to “free.” It’s a lot more complicated than that! In neighboring country Uganda, journalists largely agree that they feel they are becoming less free. So we don’t see a straightforward linear progression. From there, we put forward some more nuanced factors that complicate media systems in a more contextual way.  

Can you describe the “framework” that you have mentioned? 

In the book, we ultimately put forward these factors to help people understand how and why media systems function as they do, such as a nation’s distance from conflict, the international linkages that the country has, political changes, etc. Instead of ranking, we need to look at these contextualized factors. We can look at these factors and see how and where they manifest. And maybe instead of the framework of “most restricted” to “most free,” here are factors we can use to understand media landscapes around the world. We are trying to put forward a new set of ideas to understand the media in more nuanced ways.   

What was the experience of working with/interviewing journalists in East Africa like?  

I really love interviewing people, it’s so interesting to hear people’s stories and perspectives. For the book, we used interviews and a survey of journalists, and between those two methods we included the perspectives of 500 journalists throughout the region. Journalists are very easy to interview! They’re usually on the other side of the process, and they can tell the stories of their experiences in very detailed ways. There is still a risk to journalists depending on what they want to say, and how critical they would want to be. While it was fun and interesting, it was important to be cautious and respectful, and to take precautions to protect the identities of the people who spoke to us. Ultimately, we have an immense amount of gratitude to them for being willing to speak to us.   

Did your experiences regarding press freedom in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya draw any similarities? Or any notable differences?  

There were both similarities and particularly differences. We used those three countries as a framework for the book, because in a lot of measures Rwanda does have the most restrictive press of the three countries, while Uganda is in the middle, and Kenya is regarded as the “most free”. Which then does bring about many differences in how journalists can write, who consumes the media, and who’s funding the media. In more free media landscapes, we have more private media – meaning, media that’s funded by advertising – as opposed to public media that’s often funded by the government, where officials could have a hand in dictating the editorial content. We see a lot of differences across the three countries, which trickle down to what journalists can ask or what they can write about. But we see a lot of similarities in the things that these journalists are trying to do, or the ideas that they are holding onto.   

Does this project (and the other experiences you have had with it) inspire any future work/possible research?  

It has spurred lots of ideas for future research in the east African region!  Things are changing so fast, through technology and platforms, that the way that media is created and disseminated has changed. I feel like it’s almost time to start these interviews again. I’d like to partner with researchers in other parts of the world to see how they apply and what others should be considered. I also constantly think about using this research in my classes. For example, this past fall we used the book in my International Communication class and students picked their own countries to examine within the lens of the proposed framework. There are interesting ways to use the book in research and in the classroom. I’m very excited about it!