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Disrupting state surveillance, banning red berets, and suppressing dissension (Demo)

On 16 September, South Africa’s High Court set a global precedent, ruling that no South African could be spied on without eventually being told.

Going forward the state will be obliged to inform the person under surveillance within 90 days of the expiry of the interception order. For longer periods of surveillance there will be additional safeguards.

Judge Roland Sutherland also declared that the provisions for massive surveillance and bulk interception, contained in the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act – better known as RICA – are inconsistent with the country’s constitution.

Judge Roland went further in his judgement by giving Parliament two years to rectify the defects in RICA and align it to the constitution – either through an amendment, or by enacting a new law.

The case dates back to when Sam Sole, investigative journalist and co-head of the South African investigative journalism unit, amaBhungane, was able to confirm his long-held suspicion that he had been under surveillance. With characteristic persistence, Sole and fellow colleagues took their challenge to court after the response to their formal complaint was felt to be inadequate. Right2Know – a non profit, access to information advocacy organisation – and IFEX member Privacy International joined amaBhungane in their challenge, as friends of the court.

The implication of Judge Sutherland’s historic judgement was felt globally.

As Privacy International highlights in its analysis of the historic decision: “In Europe, we are still waiting for the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to pronounce on the legality of bulk interception in the United Kingdom and for the European Court of Justice to respond to three cases challenging bulk data retention and collection.”

Suppression of dissension in Nigeria

In a recent opinion piece in the Mail and Guardian, William Gumede, the executive chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, looked at how African governments use anti-terror laws to quell dissent. In this edited extract of a recent address on democracy and extremism in Africa, Gumede explains how “legitimate opposition parties, civil society organisations and activists are labelled ‘terror’ groups to silence them, restrict their activities, close them down and cut their funding.”

His analysis relates directly to current events in Nigeria where journalist, human rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner Omoyele Sowere remains in detention, despite a court order permitting his release.

The Nigerian Bar Association condemned the Department of State Services (DSS) for ignoring Federal High Court Judge Taiwo Taiwo’s court order permitting the release of Omoyele Sowore. Sowore’s lawyer Femi Falana dismissed claims by the DSS that it did not receive copies of the court order. In a signed statement – and reacting for the second time on the issue – Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka also condemned President Buhari’s administration for “attaining an unprecedented level of paranoia.”

On 30 September, whilst still in detention, Sowore was arraigned along with his co-defendant Olawale Bakare on seven charges – ranging from bordering on conspiracy to committing treasonable felony to money laundering. They pleaded not guilty to all the charges laid against them.

President Muhamed Buhari is being criticised for undermining Nigeria’s democracy as he comes down heavily on dissenting voices. Before and after the February 2019 presidential and senatorial elections, there has been a steady and unrelenting closing of civic space. There is very little attempt to curb police brutality, while arrests, detentions and harassment of human rights defenders continues and the media sector is being continuously checked.

Journalists reporting on corrupt practices are a frequent target.

Soon after his article on the diversion of state funds by a governor, journalist Agba Jalingo was arrested. He has been charged with treasonable felony and terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the Cross River State government.

Mary Ekere, a journalist with The Post, was arrested and arbitrarily detained for taking pictures, while her colleague, Cletus Ukpong, the regional editor for the Premium Times, was threatened for reporting on her detention.

The crackdown on dissent does not stop with government critics. Young men are also being targeted.

A  report by Quartz Africa explains how a “young person is stopped on suspicion, then arrested and detained and being hit with bogus accusations of being an internet fraudster. In those circumstances, the options are usually paying bribes to regain freedom or facing an uncertain future decided by Nigeria’s broken criminal justice system ….”

Cameroon government asked to solve crisis

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) and one of its Cameroonian partners, the Association pour Le Développement Intégré et la Solidarité Interactive (ADISI-Cameroon), recently published a report highlighting attacks on and threats against journalists by state and non-state actors in Cameroon. This crackdown is largely as a result of ongoing unrest in the country’s Anglophone regions. AFEX and ADISI-Cameroun are calling on the Cameroonian government to take steps to solve the ongoing crisis and stop the attacks on journalists and activists.

AU appeal letter sent to Tanzania

Ailing journalist Erick Kabendera had his hearing postponed for the sixth time since he was arrested more than two months ago. As reported in last month’s IFEX Regional Brief, his prolonged incarceration has had a damaging impact on his health. His lawyers’ pleas requesting he receive urgent medical attention are being ignored.

Since he is being charged with money laundering and leading organised crime, he could face up to five years in jail without trial, as bail is not guaranteed in cases involving alleged economic crimes. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Lawrence Mute, sent an appeal letter to the Tanzania government in relation to the human rights situation and the continued detention of the journalist. This intervention has been lauded by the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and journalists for press freedom.

Banning of the red beret

Ugandan member of Parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – more familiarly referred to as musician Bobi Wine – will have to give up his characteristic red beret or face a jail term. An extraordinary gazette banning the wearing of clothing resembling the military attire of the Uganda People’s Defence Force, by civilians, was passed on 18 September. This in effect prohibits the standard red beret won by opposition leader Bobi Wine and his People Power supporters.

UN Special Rapporteur mission to Zimbabwe

On 17 October, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, took part in a mission to Zimbabwe. In his preliminary end of mission report he outlined numerous concerns, including “the cumulative impact of corruption, the dismissal of striking nurses, the profound negative impact of the use of military forces, the arrests, detentions and even abductions of a high number of trade union leaders.” He also mentioned the introduction of new legislation limiting the right to peaceful assembly. He concluded his report with numerous recommendations to improve the environment and protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Review of AU Declaration

The Namibia Media Trust, in collaboration with the ACTION Namibia Coalition, convened a meeting between Special Rapporteur Lawrence Mute and Southern African freedom of expression and digital rights advocates. Over a two-day process, participants immersed themselves in reviewing the text of the revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which was adopted during the Commission’s 32nd Ordinary Session in October 2002.

With Namibia gearing up for the upcoming elections, Mute used the opportunity to meet with critical stakeholders to popularise the African Commission’s Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa.

Forum on Internet Freedom 2019

IFEX members and secretariat staff attended the CIPESA-organized Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2019, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Over four days activists, governments and academics discussed and debated solutions to the challenges of internet shutdowns, misinformation and affordable access on the continent.

Landmark publications launched at the forum include CIPESA’s State of Internet Freedom 2019 report, which documented network shutdowns in five countries: Chad, the DRC, Gabon, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

It also saw the launch of the Digital Safety Trainers’ Assistant, which covers “the kind of content and advice” that Natasha Msonza, the author, “would like to have received when she was starting out to make her journey significantly easier.

In Brief

Nigeria’s Department of State Services (DSS) is disputing reports that journalist Chido Onumah was arrested on arrival in the country. It is claiming instead, that the interaction between Onumah and the Service was ‘convivial’. Returning home from his studies in Spain, the Nigerian journalist and activist says he was told that he was arrested because the t-shirt he was wearing had We Are All Biafrians printed across the front. There are numerous individuals and groups in south-east Nigeria clamouring for an independent Biafra republic.

The South African weekly Mail and Guardian was informed by their internet service provider on 10 September that they had received a ‘verified’ complaint accusing the publication of plagiarism. They were given 96 hours to remove the content, and began looking into the complaint. Even before the 96-hour deadline had passed, their account was suspended and their website displayed an Error 404 notice. Here, they explain how an investigation by their journalist Athandiwe Saba, rankled the subject of their story – Njock Ajuk Eyong – and led to the website takedown.

New and noteworthy

A free six-week online course focusing on principles of freedom of expression, media freedom, and access to information is being offered by Wits LINK Centre and WitsX. It is designed for activists, students, regulators, journalists, lawyers, and anyone interested in ensuring a free, pluralistic and independent African media. The Wits course pays tribute to the legacy of South African media freedom and freedom of expression activist Jeanette Minnie, who passed away in November 2016.

A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that only four out of ten of Kenya’s internet users are concerned about their privacy online. This conclusion in UNCTAD’s Digital Economy report, launched at the beginning of September, was based on findings from the 2019 Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust.

Eritrea topped the list of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ report on the world’s 10 Most Censored Countries. Launched on 10 September, the rankings are based on diverse factors including restrictions on privately-owned or independent media; criminal defamation laws; restrictions on the dissemination of false news; blocking of websites; surveillance of journalists by authorities; license requirements for media; and targeted hacking or trolling.

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