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Legal victories for freedom of expression a bright spot in a month of deaths and violence against women (Demo)

Fears confirmed in Cameroon

“Since the moment of Mr Abuwe’s [Samuel Wazizi] arrest, the Cameroonian authorities have egregiously failed to comply with the due process standards established by the ICCPR and African Charter.”

June started off with the announcement, by the Cameroonian army, on 5 June, of journalist Samuel Wazizi’s passing. This admission was made 10 months and 15 days after his death in detention, by way of a statement issued by the Cameroonian Ministry of Defense.

Military spokesperson Colonel Serge Cyrille Atongfack claimed Wazizi died of severe sepsis on 17 August 2019 at the military hospital in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. His assertion that the family had been informed of his death is being refuted by them. No autopsy was performed at the time of writing, and the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union, (SNJC) was still trying to retrieve his body from state authorities. Voice of America has reported that Atongfack says the body will not be handed over to a family member because it has been sealed.

While the revelation ended months of speculation, it has also raised many questions and concerns about the continuing decline of rights and freedoms in Cameroon, at many levels. During the UN Security Council meeting on 12 June, Dominican Republic representative Ambassador José Singe expressed hope that those responsible for the death of Wazizi would be brought to justice, saying “[i]t is highly important that the Cameroonian authorities can ensure that national and international human rights organizations and the media can work in the country unhindered.” A few days later, UNESCO Director General, Audrey Azoulay followed suit, expressing her concern and asking authorities to investigate Wazizi’s detention and death.

Wazizi was arrested during the height of hostilities between armed separatists and government forces in Cameroon. Like many other journalists and critics, he was accused of collaborating with the separatists, but this accusation has never been substantiated. He was picked up by police in Buea, the capital of the southwest region of Cameroon, on 2 August 2019, and handed over to the military five days later on 7 August. It was the last time he was seen by family, friends or colleagues.

Local and international press freedom organisations had repeatedly requested information on the whereabouts of Wazizi, who was the popular news anchor of the independent Pidgin-language station Chillen Muzik and Television (CMTV). That information was never forthcoming. His family were not allowed to visit him, his lawyer did not gain access to him and his case was postponed on 8 different occasions.

Having made an official request to follow the case, the American Bar Association pointed out: “Since the moment of Mr Abuwe’s [Samuel Wazizi] arrest, the Cameroonian authorities have egregiously failed to comply with the due process standards established by the ICCPR and African Charter.”

Gender-based violence – the shadow pandemic

The brutal murders of Tshegofatso Pule in South Africa and Vera Uwaila Omozuwa in Nigeria spotlight the pandemic within the pandemic. 28-year-old Pule, who was eight months pregnant, was found hanging from a tree after being stabbed several times in Johannesburg, while 22-year-old Omozuwa who had gone into a church in Benin City, Nigeria to study, was raped and murdered.

As early as April 2020, the executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka warned of a shadow pandemic to COVID-19 – the increase of violence against women. Exactly a month later, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, Commissioner Lucy Asuagbor, also expressed her concerns.

President Cyril Ramaphosa linked the surge in rapes and killings of women to the end of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown. However, in assessing the impact on women and girls, Human Rights Watch noted: “restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to make it harder for survivors to report abuse and seek help and for service providers to respond efficiently.” With the closure of safe havens for women and girls, such as workplaces and schools, closed, they became overly exposed to risks of sexual and physical violence, while at the same time being stopped from reporting the ill-treatment.

Anti-GBV campaigners directly refuted Ramaphosa’s suggestion that the surge in rapes and killings of women was linked to the easing of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown regulations. They stressed that the police force’s gender-based violence hotline received 2,300 calls in the first five days of lockdown – nearly three times the rate prior to lockdown – showing that violence against women had gone up, not down.

Ethiopian musician’s death exposes deep ethnic fissures

Week-long, deadly protests, triggered by the killing of popular musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June, brought the deep seated ethnic tensions front and centre in Africa’s second-most populous nation’s political landscape. Ethiopian protestors clashed with police in their demand for justice. As authorities shut down the internet and journalists were impeded from covering Hundessa’s funeral, the ever present, smouldering ethnic divisions morphed into nationwide protests.

Hundessa’s popularity stemmed from his ability to give voice to the frustration of the Oromo people– the largest ethnic group in the country. He was described as a genius when “it comes to connecting with the Oromo, especially the youth, with his lyrics”,  when he was honoured with the Oromo Person of the Year award in 2017.

It is difficult to determine why Hundessa was murdered or who was involved, but as Amnesty International observes: “there has been an increase in killings of people critical of the government and political personalities in the country since 2019.”

Although he sang mostly about culture, identity, love, unity and human rights, “his songs also addressed issues of marginalisation felt by his Oromo ethnic group,” writes his friend, BBC camera operator Amensisa Ifa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is also Oromo, is accused of falling short in living up to his promises, and his ethnic tribe feel he has betrayed them.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for the peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea and for introducing sweeping political and media reforms during his two-year tenure as head of state, Prime Minister Ahmed continues to face the daunting task of unifying a deeply divided nation.

ECOWAS ruling protects right to freedom of expression

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice set a precedent on the African continent with its ruling, declaring the Togolese government internet shutdown “unlawful and contrary to international law”.

As reported by Media Defence, the Court awarded damages of 2 million CFA 2 million (USD$3400) to the plaintiffs, and ordered Togo to put in place a legal framework protecting freedom of expression that is consistent with international human rights law standards. The Court also ordered Togo not to shut down the Internet again.

The petition was brought to the ECOWAS Court of Justice on 17 December 2018 by Togolese blogger Houefa Akpedja Kouassi and seven local civil society organisations: Amnesty International Togo; the Media Institute for Democracy and Human Rights; Lantern, the Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, the Association of Victims of Torture in Togo; the Consumers’ League of Togo; and the Togolese Association for Human Rights Education. They were represented by Media Defence and Amnesty International.

In their challenge, the plaintiffs “set out in detail the severe and multi-varied impact the shutdown had on them, including how they were unable to report on protests in order to let people know what was happening.”

The two separate shutdowns took place during protests in September 2017, when the Togolese people demanded that President Faure Gnassingbé honour the country’s 1992 constitution and step down immediately. The state’s response was the disruption of the peaceful protests with teargas and violent assaults on the demonstrators.

Gabon decriminalises homosexuality

“With this vote, Gabon has become one of just a few sub-Saharan African countries to have moved to decriminalise homosexuality.”

Another continental landmark victory that reverberated around the world and earned Gabon praise was the removal of the clause in the country’s penal code criminalising homosexuality.

On 23 June, the Gabonese lower house of parliament passed the amendment removing the provision and on 29 June the upper house also passed the amendment. “With this vote, Gabon has become one of just a few sub-Saharan African countries to have moved to decriminalise homosexuality,” explained the Center for Human Rights.

The United Nations independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal Borloz, said the decision established “a valuable protection for gays, lesbians, and bisexual, trans and other gender-diverse persons in Gabon, and lets them know that they are in a country in which their dignity and integrity is valued.”

Prime Minister Julien Nkoghe Bekale expressed his support on social media, noting: “As I am against the death penalty, I am also against the stigmatisation of homosexuals.”

The Africa Report described it as a success for those behind the initiative – namely Gabon’s First Lady Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, who was one of the prominent activists behind the initiative.

After Tippexgate… 

“The overturning of the result in the fresh presidential contest set a bold precedent for the continent, as a process built upon the resilience of democratic institutions and the collective spirit of opposition.”

‘Malawi’s Fresh Election’, which led to the inauguration of Lazarus Chakwera as the new head of state, was significant on many levels, including the people’s right to express themselves at the ballot box.

February’s Constitutional Court decision to annul the result and order a new poll within 150 days represented a 360-degree turn from the contested election of the previous year. As a Chatham House article elucidates: “The overturning of the result in the fresh presidential contest set a bold precedent for the continent, as a process built upon the resilience of democratic institutions and the collective spirit of opposition.”

An attempt to bribe the judges prior to their sitting was thwarted by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda, who reported the matter to Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda. When the Constitutional Court judges presiding over the case finally announced their ruling, it took “more than 10 hours to read their 500-page decision, amid heavy security and calls for calm from diplomats,” according to a report in The Guardian.

It was an exceptional decision on a continent known for disputed elections.

Malawi is the second African country to annul a presidential election, after Kenya in 2017, but it made history by being the first country in which the opposition has won the re-run.

Unsurprisingly, the Electoral Commission and President Peter Mutharika appealed against this decision at the Supreme Court.

Dubbed Tippexgate, the voting process of the May 2019 election was, on the surface, well-managed. However, that situation deteriorated rapidly during the counting process, which was marred by numerous and widespread irregularities – from the unlawful use of correctional fluid, Tippex, to alter figures, duplicate result sheets and unsigned results forms.

The Supreme Court of Malawi’s decision in the case of Professor Peter Mutharuka v Lazarus Chakera and Saulos Chilima is described by constitutional law academic Justice Alfred Mavedzenge as “profound in the sense that the Court has broken ranks with its peers in the SADC region when it ruled that, presidential election results may be nullified by applying a qualitative test without requiring the petitioner to prove that the irregularities had a quantitative impact on the election results.”

Controlling the message

COVID-19 safety measures and regulations are being used by a few African governments to exert control over which journalists and media outlets cover state media events such as press conferences and public hearings. In various instances, media personnel from independent or privately owned media houses are either barred or ejected.

On 3 June, Namibian President Hage Geingob’s office issued an apology after state security details prevented journalists Charmaine Ngatjiheue of The Namibian and Jemima Beukes from The Namibian Sun from covering the official inauguration of the COVID-19 isolation facility at the Windhoek Central Hospital.

At the same time that the Namibia Media Trust issued a statement objecting to the hostile manner in which the women journalists were refused entry, the president’s office had already issued an apology.

In Zimbabwe, press journalists from the independent press were blocked from covering President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s handover of buses at a university.

And on 10 June, several members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives press corps were prevented from covering the public hearing of the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, and were told that only journalists from the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Channels Television would be allowed entry.

In Brief

Swaziland democracy activist Ncamiso Ngcamphalala has said he was tortured by police after he was arrested and charged with sedition for criticising King Mswati III.

The case of missing Mozambican journalist Ibraimo Mbaruco has been referred to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Media freedom and human rights organisations have requested an independent and impartial investigation into his disappearance in northeastern Mozambique, three months ago.

The Namibian government is contemplating the activation of sections of the 2009 Communications Act that make registering SIM cards mandatory for all mobile users. These parts of the act have been dormant for more than a decade because of their infringement on the right to privacy. The obligatory SIM card registration is being justified by authorities as a measure aimed at protecting the public from cybercrime. Critics feel it would open the door for the government to spy on the public, especially in the absence of a privacy protection law.

The, an interactive map providing data on disinformation laws and policies and how they are being enforced across sub Saharan Africa, was jointly launched by a coalition of civil society groups: ARTICLE 19, the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Global Partners Digital (GPD) and PROTEGE QV.

Ghanian Member of Parliament Kennedy Agyapong has been ordered to pay approximately US$18,000 in damages and retract defamatory statements he made against journalist, editor and publisher Abdul Malik Kweku Baako. The Media Foundation for West Africa welcomed the court’s decision “as a victory for the fight against impunity for crimes against journalists.”

In early June, popular, veteran journalist Samira Sabou was arrested in Niger and detained over a Facebook post.  She was charged with defamation over an article on news website Mides-Niger allegedly linking the president’s son and adviser, Sani Issoufou Mahamadou, to the overpricing of goods procured by the Defence Ministry.

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