Southern Africa: A year of persistent attacks on media threaten press freedom

Persistent attacks against journalists and media owners are threatening press freedom and the growth of independent media across Southern Africa, Amnesty International said today to mark World Press Freedom Day.

From Angola to Zambia, we have seen disturbingly brazen attacks on press freedom which have a chilling effect on those working in the media
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Southern Africa

“From Angola to Zambia, we have seen disturbingly brazen attacks on press freedom which have a chilling effect on those working in the media. Across the region, journalists have been targeted simply for exposing the truth,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa.

“This cynical onslaught is weakening independent journalism and rolling back the hard won media freedom fought for since colonial times. The authorities across Southern Africa must urgently reverse the closing of the media space.”

In Lesotho, Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri narrowly survived a shooting after being attacked by unknown gunmen on 9 July 2016. He was previously intimidated and harassed, including through trumped up charges of criminal defamation in September 2014, for his newspaper’s investigative journalism work. Since the shooting he has abandoned his job and left the country. Another journalist working for the same newspaper, Keiso Mohlobodi, has left the country fearing for her own safety after facing harassment by the police for exposing corruption.

In Botswana, journalists continue to face harassment and intimidation for carrying out investigative and critical journalism. In March 2017, two journalists from INK Centre for Investigative journalism were briefly detained and threatened with death by plain clothed security agents after they tried to access the area where the private holiday home of President Ian Khama is being constructed. They were stopped and told that it was a “restricted area” which they cannot access. They were warned that if they tried to come back, they would be killed.

In Malawi, Teresa Chirwa-Ndanga, a journalist working for privately owned television station Zodiak Broadcasting was harassed by security personnel at State House in October 2016 during her visit to cover President Arthur Mutharika’s press conference. They later told her not to ask “stupid questions” during the press conference.

During the press conference, President Mutharika attacked Zodiak Broadcasting, calling them “liars” without specifying what lies he thought they had broadcast.

In South Africa, eight South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists were summarily dismissed for questioning editorial interference by the broadcaster’s executives in July 2016. Seven of them were later re-instated to their positions after challenging their sacking through their lawyers. However, some of the journalists have since received threatening messages through their mobile phones for standing up for editorial integrity.

In Zambia, authorities shut down the independent newspaper, The Post, on 21 June 2016 demanding US$6.1 million in tax arrears. The newspaper’s owner, Fred M’membe, his wife Mutinta M’membe and the newspaper’s Deputy Managing Editor, Joseph Mwenda, were arrested in the early hours of 28 June and held at the Lusaka Central Police Station without any charges. During their detention, they were severely beaten by the police.

In Zimbabwe, the government continues to stifle critical reporting in the privately owned media. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) recorded assaults on 32 journalists as they went about their work between January and September 2016.

Two staff members at the prominent daily newspaper Newsday, were charged with “insulting” the President in 2016, they are still awaiting trial.

When journalists are constantly harassed, intimidated and jailed simply for doing their work, it sends a frightening message to other journalists
Deprose Muchena

“When journalists are constantly harassed, intimidated and jailed simply for doing their work, it sends a frightening message to other journalists – causing them to self-censor and undermining the whole profession,” said Deprose Muchena.

“Journalism is not a crime and media professionals should be given a safe space in which to do their work.”

Background

The United Nations General Assembly declared 3 May World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression as enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and articulated in subsequent international and regional human rights treaties.