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Wave of shutdowns sweep through the continent and Tanzania dips further down rabbit hole of repression (Demo)

The passing of “passionate, principled and persistent” South African journalist Raymond Louw will be acutely felt by family, friends and colleagues from across the globe. The eulogy delivered by Professor Anton at his funeral service, spoke of a man known for his honesty, integrity and commitment to media freedom and freedom of expression.

Focus on gender

News of Botswana’s High Court ruling of 11 June decriminalising private consensual sex between adults of the same sex, coming during Pride Month, was celebrated throughout the world. Botswana’s landmark ruling came less than a month after the desolate news that Kenya’s High Court had rejected a petition calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the country.

A wave of internet shutdowns

The digital terrain was once again the battleground of contestation and tension as a wave of internet shutdowns swept through the continent.

The most lethal of these conflicts was in Sudan during which it is estimated that 120 people were killed and 700 people disappeared. The interruption of mobile connectivity ordered by the Military Transitional Council on June 3 was followed by the indiscriminate onslaught against protesters. This disruption was heightened to a complete shutdown days later, during which there was an upsurge in assaults on Sudanese activists and opposition party members.

Internet was restored on 24 June – but only for one person – the lawyer who took the matter to courts and legally challenged “telecoms operator Zain Sudan over the blackout ordered by Sudan’s military rulers.” Abdel-Adheem Hassan told the BBC that he was “the only civilian in the country able to access the internet without resorting to complicated hacks.”

As reported by the International Crisis Group, “the African Union’s Peace and Security Council took an important first step in the right direction, [on 6 June] by suspending Sudan’s African Union (AU) membership until authorities put a civilian administration in place. This was followed by a mediation process led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abid Abey.

While the relentless brutality against citizens continues, activists and protesters are equally and bravely unrelenting in standing up for their rights. The end of June coincided with one of the biggest mass demonstrations since the brutal crackdown at the beginning of June.

On the international front, Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote to Federica Mogherini, vice president of the European Commission, ahead of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council session in Brussels on 17 June, calling on them to take concrete action during their meeting. Meanwhile, probing analysis by comedian Hasan Minhaj and a supportive tweet from celebrity songstress Rihanna placed a sharper focus on the Sudan situation.

Ethiopians had to contend with two internet shutdowns at different times and for very different reasons.

The first total shutdown was on 11 June from 7:30 am, and was a measure initiated to prevent students from cheating in national exams.

The second, more serious nationwide shutdown on the night of 22 June was followed by whisperings of a coup attempt, which were difficult to confirm or refute as a result of the total internet blackout. Scanty details trickled out over the ensuing days, during which the members of the ‘rogue militia’ suspected of plotting the foiled coup attempt were shot, and several hundred activists and opposition party members were arrested. Five days after the government ‘clean-up operation’ the internet was gradually restored.

On 7 June thousands of Liberians took to the streets of Monrovia to protest increasing poverty, rising inflation and rampant corruption under the leadership of former international soccer star – now president –  George Weah. His immediate response was to order internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to block all social media platforms. Media freedom advocacy organisation the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) condemned the internet disruption as a violation of freedom of expression rights.

Ethiopia wasn’t the only country addressing concerns about students cheating by blocking access to platforms. The Mauritanian government also interrupted internet services and blocked access to all social media platforms in the country to prevent cheating during exams. The first shutdown was initiated during national high school exams and the second during Baccalaureat examinations.

A third disruption in Ethiopia, this time of mobile phone connectivity, on 23 June, came on the back of police assaults of protesters from the opposition following the disputed presidential elections in the country.

While the motives and reason for the disruptions varied in the five countries – Sudan, Liberia, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Somaliland – the subsequent impact was and is the same. Disconnecting the internet is a clear violation of peoples’ right to freedom of speech and expression, cutting off peoples’ ability to communicate while also impacting negatively on the conduct of business. More grievously, it allows States to take unchecked severe action against perceived threats with absolute impunity.

Tanzania fast tracks repressive law

Tanzania’s parliament has gone ahead and fast tracked the passing of the Written Laws Bill in what has been described as an “appalling move” by Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes region.

The contentious Bill seeks to make changes to eight existing acts that will further restrict access to information, data protection and artistic free expression. It will also impose “restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association, while placing impermissible restrictions on civil society organizations and entrenching censorship” and is now awaiting President John Magufuli’s signature.

According to DW news: “The government ignored public criticism of the swift passage of the bill, saying the amendments were urgently required to plug a gap in legislation used to monitor companies and civil society organizations.”

Upbeat moments

One of the few upbeat moments in an otherwise grim month was kickstarted on 1 June, by news of Nigerian Toyosi Ogunseye being elected vice-president of the World Editors Forum (WEF). The WEF is the leading network for print and digital editors of newspapers and news organisations around the world. The award-winning investigative journalist is BBC Head of West Africa Languages based in Lagos – a position she has held since January 2018.

Over 100 notable human rights advocates, journalists and human rights activists wrote to President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, welcoming the thawing of relations with Ethiopia and expressing their hope that this would extend to the opening of democratic space in the country. They also sought permission to visit their incarcerated counterparts.

In brief

On 13 June, Namibia launched the country’s first fact checking site.

Wits Journalism’s latest State of the Newsroom, 2018: Structured/Unstructured report provides a critical review and analysis of the year’s most topical and contentious issues on the media landscape in South Africa. The content covers a range of topics from the shifting structure of traditional newsrooms to retrenched journalists going into the gig economy, political attacks on journalists, and much more.

In The Gambia, as part of an advocacy strategy around the enactment of access to information legislation, the head of the Gambia Press Union (GPU), Sheriff Bojang Jr. was part of the Gambian Civil Society Coalition on Freedom of Information delegation which handed a draft Freedom of Information Bill 2019 to the country’s Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Mr. Abubacarr Tambadou.

PEN Uganda and PEN International are demanding that charges against Ugandan writer, academic and feminist activist, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, be dropped, as they are a violation of her right to freedom of expression. Dr. Nyanzi was arrested and charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” following messages she posted on Facebook.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is supporting press freedom organisations and advocates in Nigeria condemning the new requirements compelling journalists to obtain accreditation to cover the National Assembly.

The country’s media regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) ,suspended the licences of two broadcasting stations in the country for an indefinite period. In the absence of an acceptable explanation the suspensions of the African Independent Television (AIT) and RayPower FM, are seen as politically motivated, as they are owned by a member of the opposition.

Also in Nigeria, five police officers brutally assaulted Kofi Bartels, a reporter with the privately-owned Nigeria Inforadio station, and threatened to sexually assault him.

Following the arbitrary suspension of yet another media outlet by Gabon’s High Authority for Communication (HAC), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling for an overhaul of functions of the media regulator so that it stops protecting government interests and instead fulfils its original role of defending press freedom.

Twelve media freedom and human rights advocacy organisations are united in their plea to President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to release Mauritanian citizen journalist and blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkhaitir – before Abdel Aziz leaves office in the coming weeks.

Attacks on sports journalists seemed common practice this month. Police officers complied with instructions from the vice president of Liberia’s Football Association to arrest Webster Castell, the editor of a local sports publication, despite being unclear of what charges to bring against him. In Uganda, a member of parliament from Aruu County in Uganda attacked journalist Okot Jeffrey during a football match he was covering.

RSF reported in June on the dearth of independent media in Eritrea, noting that Radio Erena, which has been in operation for 10 years, is considered the only independent and non-partisan news source that Eritreans have access to.

Journaliste in Danger (JED) expressed their concern at death threats against journalists David Munyanga and Fiston Matsanda by the Mai Mai militia in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The two were compelled to go into hiding.
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