East Africa: Now is the time to stand up for media freedom

By Abdullahi Halakhe, Amnesty International's East Africa Researcher

At a time when fake news is on the rise and robust and critical journalism is most acutely needed, the press in East Africa is facing growing challenges. Freedom of expression more generally is also at heightened risk as governments move to silence critical voices, both in mainstream and social media.

Increased access to the internet has liberalized access to information, and contributed to the rise of individual digital advocates against government excesses, leading to attacks on journalists and bloggers. Some journalists, bloggers, and media workers have been beaten, arrested and abducted.

Uganda

In Uganda, journalist Gertrude Uwitware, a reporter at NTV, was abducted by unidentified armed people on 7 April, and taken to an unknown location where she was beaten and held until midnight. She was abducted shortly after posting a blog on Facebook in support of Dr Stella Nyanzi, a renowned academic who had just been arrested simply for criticizing President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet – who is also the country’s education minister.

Dr Nyanzi, who Amnesty International considers to be a prisoner of conscience, is still being detained in maximum security prison as she pursues her bail application in court. She was charged with misusing a computer to insult the president on Facebook.

Siraji Kiberu of Kingdom Television and Dodoviko Mukasa of CBS radio were assaulted by police on 31 March 2017. The journalists were covering the arrest of an opposition MP, Betty Nambooze. Another journalist – Henry Kasomoko of Bukedde paper – had his camera destroyed.

Andrew Lwanga, a cameraman for WBS TV, was hit by a police officer while covering a protest by unemployed youth in Kampala two years ago. He sustained spinal injuries and now walks on crutches following costly treatment and remains unable to return to work. Following a drawn out court battle, the police officer who attacked him was fined $275, and ordered to pay compensation amounting to slightly over $1300.

Kenya

Last month, Kenyan journalist Isaiah Gwengi, of The Standard newspaper, was assaulted and arrested by police officers who accused him of inciting the public through his articles.

Journalist Yassin Juma was arrested in January 2016, and held under section 29 of Kenya Information and Communication Act (KICA) for posting on Facebook a photo of a Kenyan soldier allegedly killed in an attack on Kenyan peacekeepers in Somalia. Fortunately, KICA was declared unconstitutional by the High Court three months later.

Judith Akolo, a journalist with the public broadcaster, KBC, was questioned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) for retweeting a comment by Patrick Safari (@moderncorps) pointing out that the Directorate of Criminal Investigation had advertised vacancies with a one-day applications deadline.

The good news is that there have been a few court successes in between, including the striking down of KICA.

In February 2017, the High Court declared Section 194 of the Penal Code, which creates the offence of criminal defamation, unconstitutional. The court found the law, which imposes penalties of up to two years in prison for defamation, unnecessary, excessive, and unjustifiable in an open and democratic society, adding that it created a disproportionate limit on freedom of expression.

Tanzania

In Tanzania, the government has displayed hostility towards the media since President John Magufuli came to power in 2015. Praised for his fight against corruption, he has since come under sharp criticism for his assaults on media freedom and the right to freedom of expression.

In November 2016, he approved the Media Service Act 2016, which among other travesties, requires media houses to “broadcast or publish news or issues of national importance as government may direct”. This sets the wrong tone and sends a dangerous signal as to how his government will deal with the Fourth Estate.

In December 2016, the police arrested Maxence Melo, the founder of the popular online discussion portal Jamii Forum that discussed topics such as corruption and other government malfeasance. He was accused of managing a web domain not registered in Tanzania, obstructing investigations, and failure to comply with an order to disclose data in his possession.

In a further incident that captured world attention, President Magufuli sacked his information minister, Nape Nnauye, after he condemned the president’s ally, Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonde, for storming into a TV station with armed men demanding that it broadcast a video casting a local pastor in bad light.

Press freedom is on a downward spiral in East Africa. In fact, in its 2017 report released last week, press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) lamented acts of intimidation and violence against journalists in Uganda, a slow erosion of media freedom in recent years in Kenya, and a wave of laws that criminalize the dissemination of information in Tanzania.

This should serve as a wake-up call to all of us to jealously defend our right to a free, unhindered and uncensored press, and all other human rights. Governments will not voluntarily uphold them. We must demand that they do.

This article was first published here by Kenya’s The Standard newspaper on 3 May 2017