Southern Africa: COVID-19 a pretext for surge in harassment of journalists and weakening of media houses by states

As COVID-19 continues to spread across Southern Africa, governments are targeting journalists and media houses that are critical of their handling of the pandemic, Amnesty International warned today marking World Press Freedom Day.

From Madagascar to Zambia, we have seen governments criminalizing journalists and shutting down media outlets that are perceived to be calling out poor government responses to COVID-19
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa

“From Madagascar to Zambia, we have seen governments criminalizing journalists and shutting down media outlets that are perceived to be calling out poor government responses to COVID-19,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

“With the disease continuing to spread, and no end yet in sight, there has never been a greater need for accurate news and information to help people stay informed and safe. Yet the authorities across the region are targeting journalists and media houses for their critical reporting on the pandemic which is weakening this vital information flow.”

Attacks on the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and the victimization of journalists for questioning government’s handling of COVID-19 surfaced in Madagascar as the pandemic spread in the region. Publishing director and journalist at the Ny Valosoa newspaper Arphine Helisoa was arrested and put in pre-trial detention on 4 April after she was accused of criticizing the president’s handling of the national response to COVID-19 in an article. She is still in detention in Antanimora prison in the country’s capital Antananarivo. She was charged with spreading fake news and incitement of hatred towards President Andry Rajoelina. Amnesty International is calling for her immediate and unconditional release.

With the disease continuing to spread, and no end yet in sight, there has never been a greater need for accurate news and information to help people stay informed and safe. Yet the authorities across the region are targeting journalists and media houses for their critical reporting on the pandemic which is weakening this vital information flow

In Zambia, authorities shut down the independent television news channel, Prime TV, on 9 April after cancelling its broadcasting license. The cancellation came after the alleged refusal by the station to air the government’s COVID-19 public awareness campaigns because the station was owed money for airing previous state advertisements different to public awareness. Prime TV, as an independent station, depends on advertising revenue to pay the salaries of its staff and operational costs. The authorities should immediately reverse the license cancellation for Prime TV and allow it to continue broadcasting without any harassment and intimidation.

In Zimbabwe, journalists and newspaper vendors have been subjected to arrests and intimidation during their work in the context of COVID-19. At least eight journalists have faced interference and harassment in the line of their duties. Two journalists, Nunurai Jena in Chinhoyi, and Panashe Makufa in Harare, were accused of working without valid journalism accreditation cards, normally issued by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), even though the commission is yet to issue the 2020 accreditation cards to journalists. Both journalists were reporting on the enforcement of the lockdown, including policing. This harassment and intimidation of journalists in Zimbabwe prompted the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe chapter to eventually seek a High Court order ordering the police and other law enforcement agencies charged with enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown not to interfere “in any unnecessary way” with the work of journalists. The order was granted on 20 April.

In Eswatini, police detained Eugen Dube, journalist and editor of Swati Newsweek Online, for seven hours on 23 April. The detention followed an article he wrote that the King’s public health strategy in the face of COVID-19 was reckless because the country had no social distancing measures in place.

Authorities reportedly tried to charge him for ‘writing ill’ about King Mswati III which could constitute high treason. However, Amnesty International could not independently establish if he would be facing treason charges at the time of writing. In addition, the police seized three smart phones, a laptop, a notebook and other documents related to his work after conducting a search at his residence. 

According to news reports, the editor of the Swaziland News, Zweli Dlamini, is also reportedly wanted by the police because of his reporting that the King was sick with COVID-19, but he has not handed himself over. There have been news reports in Swaziland that the King is not in good health, and it is understood that authorities have launched a witch hunt against anyone who connects him to COVID-19.

In South Africa, a journalist working for an online newspaper, News24 was caught  in the crossfire when police fired rubber bullets to disperse pockets of people loitering in the streets of Yeoville, in Johannesburg on day one of the nationwide lockdown. Azarrah Karrim was on the scene filming the incident on a nearby street, when pedestrians suddenly started running to safety after being fired on by the police. In the video, multiple shots can be heard being fired at Karrim, despite her shouting "I'm media" to police.

In Angola and Mozambique, journalists were threatened and prevented from reporting freely on government’s responses to the pandemic, resulting in rumours and stigma about the virus circulating via social media.

Southern African authorities must respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom and stop treating the media with contempt and open up the civic space for journalists to do their work freely and safely. The real enemy is COVID-19, not the media
Deprose Muchena

“With advertising revenues collapsing due to COVID-19, many media houses will struggle to survive; if you add harassment and censorship by governments, the future of media freedom and independent journalism in the region looks even more gloomy,” said Deprose Muchena.

“Any effective response to COVID-19 will happen in an environment of respect for human rights and where the media is allowed to report freely. Without the media, the public will be in the dark. Southern African authorities must respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom and stop treating the media with contempt and open up the civic space for journalists to do their work freely and safely. The real enemy is COVID-19, not the media.”

 

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