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MISA highlights freedom of expression issues at 79th session of ACHPR

On May 17, 2024, the Director of MISA Regional Secretariat Director, Dr Tabani Moyo, made a statement at the 79th Ordinary session of the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights. The statement 
17 MAY, 2024
Honourable Commissioners, in 2021, the ACHPR passed Resolution 473 on the need to undertake a study on human and people’s rights and artificial intelligence. I am also cognizant of the ongoing African Union Commission consultative processes on the same, where MISA made formal submissions.

Chairperson, Excellencies, Honourable Commissioners, state delegations, ladies and gentlemen, the Media Institute of Southern Africa MISA presents this statement during the 79th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

AI adoption, threats and opportunities 

The past few years have seen an acceleration in the adoption and use of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other new technologies that will change how we communicate and access information. AI can help entrench democracy by improving access to information, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. However, AI can also amplify misinformation and disinformation and encourage surveillance, which serves to undermine the democracies that we seek to build.

Honourable Commissioners, in 2021, the ACHPR passed Resolution 473 on the need to undertake a study on human and people’s rights and artificial intelligence. I am also cognizant of the ongoing African Union Commission consultative processes on the same, where MISA made formal submissions.

In furtherance to that, MISA calls on the ACHPR to urgently develop and adopt principles for an AI policy framework. The framework should focus on how new and emerging technologies can be used to promote democracy rather than undermine individual liberties. The principles should also call upon state parties to adopt a human rights-based approach to using AI and other technologies. Priority should be given to transparency and accountability in gathering data.

My organisation, MISA, has developed a policy framework for southern Africa, and we are at hand to assist the Commission on this, particularly on issues of media freedom, privacy and access to information.

Media viability 

The media is central to how citizens access information and engage in civil life. However, the media continues to face new pressures that centre on viability, which threaten its very existence. Without credible media, disinformation and misinformation thrive, again posing a threat to democracy. Therefore, strategies that focus on media viability are needed to help foster democracies.

For example, the EU, Canada, and Australia, among others, have engaged the big tech platforms that benefit from the news media to see how these can work with the media to ensure viability. Other regions have already set the pace, and it is in the interests of the continent to come up with a unified approach to engaging these very large online platforms.

Elections and the media 

This year has been christened the Year of Democracy. There will be massive elections across the world. In Southern Africa, where MISA operates, elections at presidential, national assembly and local government levels will be held in Botswana, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius,  Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa.

Honourable Commissioners, past experiences have shown that journalists are vulnerable to attacks during elections. What is worrying in this case is that some of the countries holding elections this year have seen a decline in the World Press Freedom Index. While Namibia remains highly ranked globally, Botswana and Mozambique’s decline is worrying. Last December, a journalist was killed in Mozambique, and his assailants are yet to be accounted for.

In Botswana, the surveillance of journalists continues to be of concern. Last year, the security services confiscated the gadgets and detained two journalists with the aim of uncovering their sources of news. This is chilling to press freedom and undermines investigative journalism.

Honourable Commissioners, we are reaching out to you to call on state parties to reaffirm their commitment to the safety of journalists and freedom of expression. Elections and citizen participation are key to democracy, and for democracy to function properly, the media must operate freely to enhance access to information so that citizens can make informed decisions about how they are governed.

Shrinking civil space

Of note, Honourable Commissioners, is that authoritarianism is on the rise globally, with a strong surge in right-wing politics. A key characteristic of this is shrinking civic space and constrained civil liberties. We have raised this issue at this platform, and we cannot tire of doing so at every opportunity.

Specifically, Angola has developed a draft NGO law, which ostensibly complies with the Financial Action Task Force recommendations. However, the law imposes excessively harsh regulatory, supervisory, and disciplinary measures, including the power to suspend and terminate NGOs, that would severely curtail the independence and autonomy of Angolan CSOs.

Mozambique has also proposed a similar law under the guise of complying with the FATF recommendations. Just as with Angola, the Mozambican law has the potential to curtail freedom of association, as it gives the government absolute and discretionary powers to create and control CSOs and suspend their operations.

In Zimbabwe, we were hopeful that this trend would be reversed when President Emerson Mnangagwa declined to sign the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill into law. However, the president immediately called for the proposed law to be debated in the legislature, indicating a desire to sign it into law. The PVO Amendment Bill, like in the case of Angola and Mozambique, severely limits the operations of CSOs and encumbers the operations with broad government supervision. The government will have the authority to refuse registration and suspend the operations of CSOs. This infringes on the freedom of association that is guaranteed in the Constitution.

Similar laws have already been adopted in countries such as Tanzania, Botswana, and Malawi in the Southern African region.

The three examples are endemic to shrinking civic space in the region. MISA calls on the ACHPR to open dialogue with FATF, pointing out how its recommendations are being used to stifle the operations of legitimate civil society organisations.

Safety of journalists

Honourable commissioners, a disturbing trend emerged this year, where the security services threaten journalists over investigative reporting. In Malawi, the investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe had to go into hiding after receiving credible threats that the military MDF intended to arrest him for allegedly “endangering state security”. This threat comes from Gondwe’s story on the military’s plans to purchase 32 armoured vehicles from a company implicated in corruption. The company in question is reportedly run by businessman Zuneth Sattar, who faces allegations of corruption. Gondwe’s story revealed that the Malawi Defence Force had paid $4,98 million to a company run by Sattar and the payment was part of a deal worth $20 million.

In Zimbabwe, NewsHawks had to stop writing stories about three military personnel after the online platform reported that it had received “subtle threats and direct pressure” from state security agents.

Such threats have a chilling effect on media freedom and instil a culture of self-censorship. Self-censorship, particularly by the media, threatens public participation and, therefore, democracy.

The media helps citizens understand the true state of affairs in their country so that they can make informed decisions. It is also a platform for debate and enables people to make up their minds, particularly on governance issues. However, in a climate of self-censorship, citizens are deprived of information vital to open, wholesome public debate, which affects decision-making and, ultimately, democracy.

Honourable Commissioners, we urge you to encourage State parties, particularly Malawi and Zimbabwe in this case, to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of the media and freedom of expression, as enshrined in their respective constitutions.

MISA remains open to constructive engagement with the governments of Southern Africa through the Southern African Development Community secretariat.

Access to universal rights online 

The migration of the bulk of countries in Africa towards electronic court case management should be understood within the broader context that the judicial services have to be accessible to all and not leave anyone behind, particularly the marginalised and vulnerable groups, as the world becomes increasingly digitised.

Esteemed commissioners, please allow me to bring to your attention that in Africa, as of 2022, only 36% of the citizens have access to the internet, according to the World Bank.

The statistics do not further explain whether this is meaningful access to the internet. As you are aware, internet access is driven by mobile network operators, which pursue the profit motive. In communities such as rural areas with limited economic access, there is no motivation to connect these communities.

In this regard, the pace with which the judicial services are migrating to online platforms must be alive to these realities and ensure that these marginalised communities are not left behind as they are not connected.

We urge the ACHPR to

  • Call on State parties to develop and adopt principles of an AI policy framework, whose focus is on how new and emerging technologies can be used to promote democracy rather than undermine individual liberties
  • Come up with a platform to engage very large online platforms on how they can enhance democracy in Africa and promote media viability
  • Call on State parties to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and the safety of the media, particularly during election periods
  • Migration of services online, such as judicial services, should be proportionate to internet and telecommunication services development across member states through the transparent and accountable use of Universal Services Funds.

The statement by MISA Regional Secretariat Director, Dr Tabani Moyo, was presented virtually at the 79th Ordinary session of the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights on the 17th of May 2024.

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