MAVERICK CITIZEN: SOUTHERN AFRICA HUMAN RIGHTS ROUNDUP #39

Covid-19 and the escalating assault on press freedom across Southern Africa

By Tatenda Mazarura 25 May 2021

With the world’s attention focused on combating Covid-19 governments in Southern Africa have taken advantage of the health crisis to escalate censorship, overlook or allow ill treatment of journalists and impose restrictions to silence free speech. (Photo: medpagetoday.com/Wikipedia)

With the world’s attention focused on combating Covid-19 governments in southern Africa have taken advantage of the health crisis to escalate censorship, overlook or allow ill-treatment of journalists and impose restrictions to silence free speech. Journalists across southern Africa have been intimidated, threatened, fined, jailed, assaulted and even killed for doing their job.

Tatenda Mazarura

Tatenda Mazurura, a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) is a professional rapporteur and an election expert tracking human rights developments in Southern Africa for the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN).

The past year has seen a direct correlation between the Covid-19 pandemic and a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information, an increase in obstacles to news coverage and a blatant attack on independent journalism in various forms. 

In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounced governments for taking advantage of the Covid-19 outbreak to pass repressive media laws, punish journalists and censor information. 

Christophe Deloire, RSF’s Secretary-General, said governments were using: “The fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned, and protests are out of the question in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times.”

In this article, we examine this claim from a cross-sectional summary of the state of freedom of press in Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eswatini, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe since the start of the pandemic.   

Angola’s false hope under João Lourenço

When President João Lourenço came into power in September 2017, ending four decades of rule by the Santos family in Angola, the hope was that his administration would decriminalise journalism and restore media freedoms, among other reforms. Yet censorship is still widespread. 

On 19 April 2021, the Ministry of Telecommunications, Information Technologies and Social Communication (MINTTICS) announced the suspension of the licenses of three television channels, Zap Viva, Vida TV and TV Record Africa Angola, claiming that the media companies were operating under provisional registrations and would remain suspended until the regularisation of their status. The three media companies however allege they did not receive prior communication of any administrative procedure against them.

On 23 April 2021, Francisco Rasgado, the Director and Founder of the privately-owned newspaper Chela Press, was arrested, by four heavily armed police officers, for allegedly failing to appear in court in connection with a criminal defamation and insult complaint by Rui Falcão, the secretary of information for the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party.  If convicted, Rasgado faces multiple penalties

Police also recently interrogated journalist Mariano Brás for allegedly insulting President Lourenco, and detained reporter Jorge Manuel for five days for being on site when some authorities were planning to demolish several houses in the Sequele area.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organisation that promotes press freedom worldwide, has urged Angolan authorities to drop the criminal defamation and insult charges against Rasgado, and reform the country’s laws to decriminalise journalism.

With the world’s attention focused on combating Covid-19, governments in southern Africa have taken advantage of the health crisis to escalate censorship, overlook or allow ill-treatment of journalists and impose restrictions to silence free speech. (Photo: lusakatimes.com/Wikipedia)

When even Botswana joins the media unfreedom club

In the 2020 world press freedom index, RSF reported that press freedom violations in Botswana had declined under president Mokgweetsi Masisi’s regime. However, although the country’s media freedom ranking continues to improve, violations were reported over the last year. 

In April 2020, president Masisi was accused of using the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on media and government critics. This followed the passing of the Emergency Powers Act by Parliament, which gave the president powers to rule by decree for six months. 

The Act introduced offences with heavy punishment, including imprisonment of up to five years or a $10,000 fine for anyone publishing information with “the intention to deceive” the public about Covid-19 or measures taken by the government to address the pandemic. 

DRC: Press censorship and safety of journalists a huge concern

The human rights situation in the DRC has reportedly deteriorated under president Felix Tshisekedi’s watch. His administration is accused of increasingly cracking down on the media and activist groups during its two years in office. 

In January 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 109 cases of arbitrary arrests and harassment had been recorded over the past year. Many victims were journalists, who faced intimidation, threats, and sometimes beatings. 

In a recent incident, security forces have repeatedly threatened and intimidated staffers at the privately-owned broadcaster Radio Télé Communautaire Babombi (RTCB) and the community broadcaster Radio Communautaire Amkeni Biakato (RCAB) over a report they both broadcast on 10 March 2021. 

On 20 August 2020, in Lodja, in the central province of Sankuru, soldiers and the police stormed the office of the privately-owned Radio Losanganya and arrested Hubert Djoko, a journalist, and Albert Lokongo, a radio technician, accusing them of supporting the governor’s long-standing political rival. 

On 24 March 2020, Tholi Totali Glody, a journalist with  Alfajiri TV, a flagship TV station in Haut-Katanga province, was chased by the police and knocked off his motorcycle after explaining that he was reporting on compliance with the lockdown imposed by the provincial governor. He ended up in hospital with a broken leg.

The CPJ has urged the DRC authorities to stop acting as censors and ensure the safety of journalists so they can freely report on the military without fear of intimidation or harassment.

Eswatini: Thou shalt not upset the Royals

In 2020 and 2021, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eswatini 141 out of 180 countries on media freedom. This was based partly on constraints that journalists face in working freely under the absolute monarchy, and because courts are not permitted to prosecute representatives of the monarchy.  

In August 2020, Eswatini authorities gazetted a new omnibus cybercrime bill. The bill criminalises “fake news” and “cyberbullying.” It provides that any person who publishes a statement or “fake news” through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person or group of persons commits an offence, and if convicted is liable to a fine not exceeding  £1- million ($600,000) or imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or both. According to Human Rights Watch, if adopted, the bill will further constrain independent journalism and critical speech in the country. 

In May 2020, Eugene Dube, editor of the Swati Newsweek website, fled Eswatini after questioning the authorities’ handling of the epidemic, alleging government intimidation and harassment. 

In late April 2020, Zweli Martin Dlamini, editor of Swaziland News, also fled the kingdom after being harassed by police, following publication on 11 April of a news report that the king had contracted the coronavirus and that the government was not forthcoming with information.

Zambia: Deploying the law to sanitise gagging of the press

The past few years have seen Zambian authorities escalating attacks and intolerance on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. Criticism of the authorities related to alleged corruption by government officials and the state of human rights under president Edgar Lungu has been violently suppressed. Security forces regularly attack and arrest government critics and human rights activists.

Recently, Zambia enacted a controversial digital security law aimed at tackling digital crime, the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021. The Act came into force on 1 April 2021.

National and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International,  have expressed concern that the Act could be used to muzzle the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the right to privacy, especially as the nation heads for a general election in August.

On 6 April 2021, Zambian civil society organisations approached the high court in Lusaka, accusing the government of violating the Constitution through the enactment of the Cyber Crimes Act. Chapter One Foundation, Bloggers of Zambia, Gears Initiative, People’s Action for Accountability and Good Governance in Zambia and the Alliance for Community Action, argued that the new law contains provisions that threaten the right to protection of the law and the right to freedom of expression, among other constitutionally guaranteed rights. 

Among others, the Act, seeks to promote the “responsible use of social media platforms” and may also allow the government to listen to people’s conversations without a court order. 

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe) has registered concern that governments in the region could soon be relying on cybersecurity laws to curtail freedom of expression and of the media.

Zimbabwe — a serial abuser of media freedom

In Zimbabwe, journalists continue to be harassed, arrested and unnecessarily detained for disseminating information and exposing corruption and gross human rights violations. 

According to Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, this year, seven attacks on journalists by state security agents had been recorded by 3 May 2021, including the attempted shooting of journalist Frank Chikowore by prison officers at the Magistrate Courts in Harare. In 2020, 52 cases of attacks on journalists by state security agents were recorded.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Media Monitors and MISA Zimbabwe condemned the continued prosecution and persecution of journalists epitomised by the various court cases around investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono. He was arrested for exposing a multi-million dollar tender for supplies to fight the Covid-19 pandemic that involved the first family and the now-former Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo. 

Reports of journalists arrested for covering police brutality incidents during the lockdown have also been recorded. 

With the world’s attention focused on combating Covid-19 governments in southern Africa have taken advantage of the health crisis to escalate censorship, overlook or allow ill treatment of journalists and impose restrictions to silence free speech. (Photo: ipsnews.net/Wikipedia)

Tanzania after Magufuli: Glimmer of hope for media freedom

Under the recently deceased Magufuli’s rule, Tanzania experienced a severe press freedom crisis, including arbitrary suspensions and closure of media outlets. The crackdown on press freedom in Tanzania was facilitated by a legal framework that concentrated power over media in the hands of the government. 

In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, Tanzania toughened its laws more than any other African country, when it published a new regulation in July 2020, which drastically restricted freedom of information.  Prohibitions included publishing “information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious disease in the country or elsewhere without the approval of the respective authorities.” Tanzanian media were also prohibited from broadcasting any foreign content without prior government authorisation.

For instance, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority suspended Kwanza Online TV for 11 months after “generating and disseminating biased, misleading and disruptive content.” The move came after the station shared a health alert on Instagram from the US Embassy, noting the Tanzania government had not published any numbers on Covid-19 cases or deaths since 29 April 2020.

In a positive turn of events, the new president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, ordered the lifting of the ban on all media houses in April 2021. The president instructed the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports to free media outlets that were banned and instead ensure they follow the rules set by the government, a move that was welcomed by the Tanzania Editors’ Forum (TEF) and the International Press Institute (IPI). TEF described the development as a step towards restoration of freedom of the press in the country.

Conclusion

It is galling that an already difficult media landscape pre-pandemic has been made worse in its aftermath. Governments across the region, with the refreshing exception of the new Tanzanian administration, have embraced and exploited the windfall of opportunities that Covid-19 has brought for their repressive disposition. 

Vague and broad Covid-19 related laws have been enacted claiming to ‘protect the public.’ Sadly, this is really not new but a historical continuity. It is a tragedy of immense proportions that decades after gaining self-rule, citizens are still governed by leaders that do not comprehend the nexus between press freedom and development. From harassment to murder — and all there is in between — the unfortunate conclusion is of governments that are not only the enemies of press freedom but of the truth itself. DM/MC

Tatenda Mazurura, a Woman Human Rights Defender (WHRD) is a professional rapporteur and an election expert tracking human rights developments in Southern Africa for the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN).

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region.

The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen.

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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