As the continent commemorates Africa Day on 25 May 2020, it is worrying that the majority of Southern African countries, typical of fragile states, are taking advantage of the outbreak of the deadly Coronavirus to tighten their grip on power.
These countries are doing this by introducing nefarious laws and engaging in practices that undermine media freedom, access to information and freedom of expression.
In most of these countries, the common trend has seen the Executive unilaterally making decisions as if their respective countries are on sabbatical in terms of upholding constitutional rights.
Resultantly, the law-making role of parliament in these countries is being subverted and diminishing, thereby compromising the much-needed checks and balances and the principle of separation of powers.
With COVID-19 lockdowns still in place across the region, individual freedoms, the rights to free speech and free media, have been the biggest casualties of these actions. This is evidenced by the number of reported media violations across the region, perpetrated by state security agents.
The respective governments do not view the media as part of the ecosystem of essential services, aimed at fighting the spread of the disease through the dissemination of professionally curated content in the age of misinformation and disinformation.
This is sadly coming in the aftermath of the successful review of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The declaration provides for the rights to internet, expression, privacy and access to information and media freedom among others.
In this regional solidarity statement, MISA Zimbabwe takes a bird’s view of some of the worrying trends as noted below:
Eswatini: Two journalists, Zweli Martin Dlamini and Eugene Dube fled the country to South Africa, fearing their lives were in danger.
Dlamini, the editor of Swaziland News, had in April written a story that King Mswati had contracted COVID-19. The police reportedly visited his home where they allegedly harassed his family members.
On the other hand, Royal Police visited Dube’s house, at least three times, seeking to interrogate him because the authorities were upset that he was reporting about the activities of an opposition group.
The police, on the other hand, claim they wanted to arrest Dube, the editor of Swati Newsweek because he had contravened COVID-19 lockdown regulations. He was detained for nine hours on April 23, but Dube said the police did not question him on the alleged contravention of lockdown regulations.
We urge the eSwatini authorities to guarantee the safety of the two journalists.
Mozambique: Ibraimo Abu Mbaruco, who was allegedly abducted by soldiers, has been missing for six weeks now. Mbaruco, a journalist at Palma Community Radio, has not been seen or heard of since April 7. On the day he went missing, Mbaruco sent messages to colleagues informing them he was being abducted by soldiers.
He is still missing despite numerous calls from the local, regional and international conversations calling for the government of Mozambique to release him.
South Africa: Community journalist, Paul Nthoba, has been forced to flee into Lesotho to seek refuge after he was allegedly assaulted by South African police. Nthoba had been profiling police officers enforcing lockdown regulations in a township in the Free State province when he was allegedly assaulted.
Following the alleged assault, the journalist went to a police station to report the case, but instead of the matter being investigated, he faced further abuse.
Nthoba then crossed into Lesotho where he informed the United Nations that he was seeking exile status, as the officers who allegedly assaulted him are still on duty.
Zambia: In April, Zambian authorities cancelled the licence of privately owned television station Prime TV. The television station is on record refusing to flight the Zambian government’s messages free of charge during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
Prime TV had made a name for itself with their critical coverage, particularly their reportage on the COVID-19 outbreak.
Recently, as well, members of the ruling Patriotic Front disrupted an interview involving UNPD leader, Hakainde Hichilema. They accused him of cheap politicking tactics to insult and provoke people and then act like a victim to try and attract cheap sympathy.
Zimbabwe: Between 31 March and 15 April 2020, following the country’s 21-day COVID-19 lockdown, MISA Zimbabwe recorded 15 cases of journalists either being assaulted, harassed or arrested while performing their constitutionally guaranteed duties. It took MISA Zimbabwe’s court application to stop the police and uniformed forces’ media freedom violations.
This week, the government of Zimbabwe gazetted the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill, which MISA Zimbabwe rightfully noted in its analysis, that it seeks to entrench state surveillance of citizens.
On 22 May 2020, journalists Frank Chikowore and Samuel Takawira were arrested at a clinic in Harare where three opposition MDC Alliance officials are being treated following their alleged abduction and torture after staging a demonstration.
Chikowore and Takawira who spent a night in police custody were on 23 May 2020 denied bail and remanded in custody to 26 May 2020 on charges of breaching Section 11 (b) of Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 in terms of the COVID-19 regulations when they appeared before the court in Harare’s suburb of Mbare.
The charge deals with failure to comply or obey without substantive cause, the instructions of a police officer.
Further, at the time of the writing this regional solidarity statement, MISA Zimbabwe is objecting to the new accreditation categories proposed by the Zimbabwe Media Commission as both dangerous and injurious to media freedom under the deceptive measures to contain the deadly pandemic.
MISA Zimbabwe position
Given the trend of media freedom and free expression violations in the region, MISA Zimbabwe urges for the following actions:
- That the Southern African Development Community (SADC) takes a firm stance in defence of media freedom, freedom of expression and right to access to information as provided for in the African Union (AU) protocols and instruments such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; the AU’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information as well as respective countries’ constitutional provisions, among others.
- Respective governments in the region must ensure that the police and independent commissions, respectively, investigate these wanton acts of lawlessness and impunity and the attacks on the media and journalists and duly make public the findings of such investigations with the view of punishing the perpetrators.
- SADC, as a regional body, must take the unequivocal position and assertion that the media is an essential service in the fight against COVID-19.
- That as part of economic stimulus packages by the respective governments, the media be preserved through respective member states establishing independent revolving funds to guarantee the survival of the media post the COVID-19 pandemic