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COVID-19 pandemic: The scapegoat for repression and restrictions (Demo)

Governments continue using the pandemic to introduce sweeping reforms, arguing that they are necessary measures to contain the coronavirus. Attacks, assaults and arrests of journalists are on the rise, while at the same time there is curtailment of critical information. This report supplements a special mid-month regional brief published on 17 April.

For a brief moment, freedom of expression and access to information activists were able to cast their attention away from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and celebrate the release of the revised Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa on 17 April.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) had adopted the Declaration in 2019 during its 65th Ordinary Session, but its launch was deferred due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Revisions began in earnest in 2018 with Lawrence Mute, the AU Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, working with experts and members of civil society groups from different parts of the continent. The consultations were in response to calls that the Declaration be revised and expanded to include freedom of expression and access to information rights, both online and offline, and incorporate digital rights issues that were only partly included or not included at all in the 2002 Declaration.

Its release comes at a time when the continent is grappling with a global public health crisis, making the overall tenets – and in particular the principles on proactive and maximum disclosure of information – more important than ever.

Information awareness

While some governments are not proactively sharing critical information on the coronavirus, many have worked to effectively raise awareness via the mass media and, in particular, through radio and television.

In Kenya, Antony Mwelu, a 24-year-old content creator and former resident of the densely populated suburb of Mathare got together with graffiti artist Brian Musasia Wanyande to augment government campaigns by creating visual and accessible messages for residents. By directly engaging people in the community, the “Spray It, Don’t Say It” initiative provides information that everyone can readily relate to.

It’s as captivating as Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo’s rendition of the late Miriam Makeba’s song “Pata Pata” into No Pata Pata”  – we dance, but we keep our distance. The UNICEF Goodwill ambassador also paid tribute to iconic saxophonist and jazz musician Manu Dibango, who passed away this year at the age of 86 after contracting COVID-19.

However, many information awareness campaigns are shared in formats that exclude people with hearing and visual impairments, as highlighted by a recent Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) report .

“A large section of persons with disabilities face digital exclusion due to lack of access and affordability of the requisite ICT tools and equipment, as well as failure by broadcasters and telecom operators to provide information and services in disability friendly formats”.

Partnerships to counter disinformation

Given the rise in information pollution and its even more lethal effect in the case of the pandemic, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), in partnership with the South African government, has launched an initiative known as the Real411 version 2 , which is now able to assess information related to the coronavirus. It builds on the initial Real411 project created in the lead-up to South Africa’s 2019 elections, when MMA (in partnership with the Independent Electoral Commission) set up an online platform the public could use to submit complaints relating to disinformation and the elections.

In the new version, complaints relating to “hate speech”, incitement to violence, online attacks of journalists, and disinformation can now be submitted. Once reviewed, the complaint is assessed by a legal expert, and action is recommended. There is also an appeals panel, overseen by former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob.

Blocking the free flow of information

Under the guise of reducing COVID-19-related mis- and disinformation, many countries are using recently-enacted regulations to restrict the free flow of information.

“When reform of repressive laws is lagging, new all-purpose legislation in the name of the fight against disinformation or hate speech is cropping up everywhere.”  – Reporters Without Borders

The majority of attacks, assaults, and arrests of journalists reporting on the pandemic has had little to do with the spreading of false information, and much to do with restricting stories that report on the enforcement of lockdowns and their impact, and aim to hold governments accountable.

In addition to the continuing trend of detaining high numbers of journalists, Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index predicts cyber-censorship will continue to gain ground as a new and more highly effective weapon to use against media in Africa.

Stay home and stay safe… or go out and be beaten

As the catchphrase “Stay Safe, Stay at Home” criss-crosses the globe, the measures taken to keep citizens off the streets on the African continent have been in most instances brutal and excessive.

While South Africa was applauded by the World Health Organisation for its strategy to contain COVID-19, it was also criticised for its toxic lockdown culture.

United Nations director of field operations Georgette Gagnon highlighted excesses in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, along with 12 other countries. She mentioned reports of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips, to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Thirty-nine complaints including murder, rape, use of firearms and corruption are being investigated.”

Numerous incidents of assaults, torture, extortion, sexual harassment, rape, and extra-judicial killings have been reported to South Africa’s independent oversight body – the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).

In just one month, Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission documented the extra-judicial killings of 18 citizens during lockdown enforcement, in addition to incidents of unlawful arrests, detention, the seizure and confiscation of properties, gender based violence, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and extortion.

On 29 March, 19 individuals from Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community were arrested in a raid on a shelter that provides refuge to homeless LGBTQI+ people, charged with violating COVID-19 regulations on gathering. At a 28 April hearing they were denied bail . Their lawyers, who have been blocked from accessing their clients, filed an application with the High Court to allow them to do so. Rights groups say the men are being persecuted for their sexual orientation, not for breaching COVID-19 laws. Their next hearing is scheduled for 12 May.

The use of brutal force to hold back people defying regulations in their desperate search for food prompted the African Special Rapporteur on Prisons, Conditions of Detention and Policing in Africa to issue a statement expressing concern at the abuses by “law enforcement and public security forces” and emphasizing the principles of “legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability.”

Amnesty International points out that “a high proportion of those in detention are there just for peacefully exercising their human rights”, and is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience. “As well as being the right thing to do, releasing prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally would free up space in these facilities and help to protect prisoners and staff from the COVID-19.”

It is a similar call to that being made by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In a regionally-focused campaign, 80 organisations have written to heads of state in Africa to release jailed journalists.

“I am surrounded by soldiers”

A recent disturbing story out of Mozambique relates more to a rapidly deteriorating security crisis than to COVID-19. The disappearance of journalist Ibraimo Abu Mbaruco in the northern province of Cabo Delgado triggered a response by 17 civil society organisations in the form of a letter to President Filipe Nyusi. In it, they express concern at government forces’ use of violence against journalists reporting on the Islamist insurgency in the area, and ask for a thorough investigation into Abu Mbaruco’s disappearance.

The last time Mbaruco was heard from was on 7 April, when he messaged a colleague saying “I am surrounded by soldiers”. Soon after, members of the Mozambican chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Mozambique) went to his home town of Palma to seek an account of his disappearance, which they documented.

Amnesty International highlights that “Mbaruco’s enforced disappearance comes amid growing evidence that Mozambican security forces have continued to harass, intimidate, and arbitrarily detain journalists covering fighting between government forces and the armed group.”

In Brief

Yayesaw Shimelis will make history as the first journalist and citizen to be charged with violating Ethiopia’s new hate speech law. Shimelis was arrested on 27 March on charges of spreading misinformation for his Facebook post claiming 200,000 graves had been ordered as part of Ethiopia’s COVID-19 response. He was granted bail on 15 April, but instead of being released, his charges were escalated to charges of terrorism. Five days later, the terrorism charges were thrown out, but he remained in custody. The Federal Attorney General’s office put out a statement saying Shimelis was now being charged under the recently passed Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation.

Jailed investigative journalist Ignace Sossou appeared briefly before the Cotonou Appeals Court in Benin to appeal his conviction on harassment by electronic communication. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in late December 2019 after being convicted of harassing government official Mario Mètonou. The journalist was accused of defaming the government official by placing his speech at a conference out of context, though he had tweeted the speech verbatim. Sossou’s appeal hearing has been postponed to 5 May 2020.

Incensed by attacks on the media by David Umahi’, Governor of Nigeria’s Ebonyi State, IFEX members Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and International Press Centre (IPC) have petitioned for his removal. This was after the governor announced a lifetime ban on journalists Chijioke Agwu and Peter Okutu from access to State Government House and other state facilities. In his announcement the governor made inflammatory statements against the two, putting their lives and those of other media practitioners in danger.

As MRA’s Executive Director Edetaen Ojo noted, “the Governor [has] deliberately and unlawfully created a toxic environment for journalists and other media practitioners in Ebonyi State by continually making it impossible for them to carry out their professional duties, recklessly inciting citizens against them and putting their lives and welfare at risk.”

In a bizarre case of mistaken identity in Madagascar, on 4 April authorities detained Arphine Helisoa, the director of the privately owned Madagascar-based Ny Valosoa (The Reward) newspaper. She was accused of spreading false news and inciting hatred toward President Andry Rajoelina. However, the article in question had been published by another news website with a similar name. The offending article accuses President Andry Rajoelina of mismanaging the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator,  “Authorities in Madagascar should drop their ludicrous campaign against journalist Arphine Helisoa and halt efforts to intimidate the press.”

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