African leaders justified controls over the media at the African Media Leaders Forum in Addis Ababa on Friday, reiterating their support for a free media even as they maintained that absolute freedom would lead to anarchy.

In a keynote address delivered on behalf of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto said Africa had historically suffered from racist, colonial narratives propagated under the guise of free expression.

“Freedom of expression is not about truth, it is about the freedom of the sponsors of the media, of advertisers to propagate these old narratives,” said Mr. Ruto who, along with Mr. Kenyatta, faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). “It is the freedom to sponsor exploitation and manipulation …through an unbalanced narrative of change.” The Kenyan Parliament recently passed a media regulation bill that empowers the government to create a tribunal to draw up a code of conduct for the media and impose fees of up to $11,700 for individuals and $234,000 for organisations found in violation of the code. The precise details of the code are yet to be finalised, but provisions to ensure 45 per cent local content on television channels, including advertising, have worried media houses. 

On Friday, Mr. Ruto acknowledged the bill as “contentious” but said Mr. Kenyatta wouldn’t sign the bill in its present form but will refer it back to Parliament. “Discussions are underway between various stakeholders to resolve contentious issues,” he said.

Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, denounced the media for focus on issues such as malnutrition and corruption while ignoring the achievements of African governments. 

“You can never be free unless you love yourself,” Dr. Dlamini-Zuma said, “Just as we may tell of hunger somewhere, we must be able to say for these malnourished child there are hundreds of healthy children.”  Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen, said that as long as the media and the government had the same broad position on a “developmentalist” strategy of economic progress, “we can manage and solve things”. Ethiopia has one of the worst records for press freedom with 49 journalists forced into exile according to the Committee for Protection of Journalists. Mr. Mekonen denied these charges.