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COVID-19 in Africa: right to information another casualty with spike in attacks on journalists (Demo)

It started with countries declaring COVID-19 a national disaster, while others instituted a state of emergency. To date, 14 countries across Africa have declared a state of emergency. Then came the implementation of partial and complete lockdowns which were kicked off with a range of swiftly enacted regulations, orders, decrees or executive orders/decrees.

Rwanda was the first country to shut down, followed closely by South Africa, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Senegal. Then Zimbabwe and many other countries followed suit. Malawi announced their lockdown on 14 April, just as South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and Namibia announced extensions to their partial and complete lockdowns. At the same time, Madagascar, Botswana, Senegal and The Gambia have extended their state of emergency status.

Since the regulations were instituted and states of emergency declared there has been a sharp rise in reports of threats, intimidation and assaults on journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic across the continent.

Liberia: Journalists Bioma Yates, Joel Cholo Brooks, Frank Wornbers Payne and Molley Trojan Kiazolu have been harassed or attacked by security forces in four separate incidents all related to COVID-19 coverage.

Madagascar: Just as Real TV in Madagascar was about to rebroadcast an interview with former President Marc Ravalomanana – in which he criticized the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis – its transmitter and antenna was damaged. The station has been off-air since 6 April.

Côte d’Ivoire: The Générations Nouvelles newspaper was fined for publishing the COVID-19 status of two inmates at Maison d’Arret et de Correction d’Abidjan (MACA) – Abidjan’s biggest prison. Côte d’Ivoire’s Magistrate Court ruled the newspaper had published false information likely to cause panic, and ordered it to pay the equivalent of USD 8,356.

Comoros: The Comorian government is threatening to prosecute Andjouza Abouheir, a journalist with the independent daily, La Gazette des Comores, who pointed out that the reason the island did not have any confirmed cases was probably because the samples taken from six persons suspected of being infected were not sent for analysis.

South Africa: The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and the South African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA) issued a joint statement condemning the heavy handed tactics being used against the journalists covering the lockdown as well as the members of the public.

Ghana: Civil society organisation iWatch Africa is demanding an investigation into the attacks on journalists Samuel Adobah and Yussif Abdul Ganiyu by Ghana’s military personnel in two separate incidents.

Somalia: Access to information about the coronavirus crisis held by Somalia’s public institutions is closely controlled and difficult to access. This was confirmed by Somali journalist Abdalle Ahmed Mumin in his interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists: “the main challenge is the lack of flow of information from the Health Ministry and the reluctance of the authorities to tell the media what is happening.”

“Speaking frankly, it is like a double burden. Journalists are already facing a bad security situation in Somalia, and now there is the coronavirus. The coronavirus has not stopped the threats we had against the lives and safety of journalists,” he added.

Zimbabawe: On the International Press Institute tracker of threats, harassment, arrests and assaults on the media across the globe, Zimbabwe has the highest number of violations with 12 incidents since the start of the lockdown. This has prodded the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa into taking up the matter in the High Court to put a stop to the harassment of accredited journalists. The organisation has also filed an urgent application “compelling the government to publish and disseminate with immediate effect information on the private and public testing and treatment centres at national, provincial and district hospitals allocated for dealing with COVID-19 cases.”

Violence used to enforce COVID-19 curbing strategies

Profoundly concerning is the militarisation of this public health issue, with countries using the army and police to ensure compliance with the regulations. Stories of excessive force – brutal assaults, shootings and killings have been reported from many countries across the continent – Zimbabwe, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.

Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission has reported the death of 18 people at the hands of security forces during the enforcement of the country’s total lockdown. At this stage this is higher than the number of people who have lost their lives to the Coronavirus.

On 14 April, the Zimbabwe High Court ordered Zimbabwean soldiers, police officers and other enforcement officers to respect human rights, the dignity of people and their fundamental freedoms and rights while enforcing lockdown regulations. This follows a suit brought by Lucia Masvondo in Masvingo after she was assaulted by the police and bitten by one of their dogs.

At times, enforcement is targeting specific communities.

In Uganda, police picked up fourteen gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women from a homeless shelter in Nsangi on the outskirts of Kampala and jailed them. This is despite UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s advice to governments to reduce prison populations to prevent outbreaks that would be hard to control. They were charged with disobeying rules on physical distancing and risking the spread of coronavirus, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes homophobia is at the root of the arrests. A nurse helping at the shelter and two others who had been arrested along with the 20 were released.

An open letter signed by 80 rights advocacy organisations demanding the release of all jailed journalists has been sent to 10 African heads of state as the coronavirus spreads across the African continent. The campaign is being driven by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Regulations curtailing rights

There is mounting tension between protecting the health of the public and ensuring liberties and fundamental rights. This is evidenced by countries using the pandemic to insert clauses that will restrict how information can be disseminated, the criminalisation of sharing polluted information, and – even more disturbing – the legitimisation of surveillance, while maintaining that it is specific to issues related to COVID-19.

In Botswana, sharing information about the pandemic that is not obtained from the Director of Health Services or the World Health Organisation will either be fined or imprisoned or both according to Section 30 (3) of the country’s Emergency Powers (COVID-19).

Service providers in South Africa have agreed to hand over cellphone location data of their subscribers when requested by government. Amendments to the National Disaster Act allow for tracking of citizens who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their known contacts via their smartphones. Kenya is monitoring individuals under self-quarantine to ensure the individuals do not step out of their quarantine locations.

As Digital Freedom Fund reasons: “while it is of course necessary to put in place safeguards to slow the spread of the virus, it’s absolutely vital that these measures are balanced and proportionate.

IFEX member Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has joined regional and international organisations in setting out benchmarks that governments should uphold when resorting to increased digital surveillance.

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