East and Southern Africa: Media freedoms curtailed as COVID-19 regional crises expose urgent need for access to information
Journalists and media houses across East and Southern Africa came under increasing attack in the past year, despite the urgent need for access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises in the region, Amnesty International said today.
Across the region, media workers have been laid off, television stations suspended or shutdown, private press targeted and journalists intimidated in a heavy blow to the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
“What we have witnessed in the past year, as far as media and journalistic freedom is concerned, can only be described as a dark period,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, on World Press Freedom Day.
“This blatant attack on independent journalism across the region - sends a chilling message that dissent and the uncovering of uncomfortable truths will not be tolerated. National authorities across East and Southern Africa must stop this roll back of media freedoms and ensure that media professionals are safe and protected to do their job.”
On 19 April 2021, the Ministry of Telecommunications, Information Technologies and Social Communication (MINTTICS) announced the suspension of the licences of three television channels, Zap Viva, Vida TV and TV Record Africa Angola, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs. In its statement, MINTTICS alleged that the media companies were operating under provisional registrations and would remain suspended until the regularization of their status. The three media companies were taken aback by the suspension of their licences, as they alleged not receiving prior information or notification of any administrative procedure against them.
In Burundi, four journalists were granted presidential pardon and released from prison in December 2020. They had been arrested in October 2019 on their way to report on clashes in Bubanza province and in January 2020 convicted of an “impossible” attempt to threaten internal state security, sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and fined BIF1 million (US$525). Their release and the reopening of Bonesha FM radio in February are positive developments, but severe restrictions on media freedom continue.
In Madagascar, authorities issued a decree on 22 April banning all radio stations and audio-visual programmes “susceptible of threatening public order and security and threatening national unity”. The decree was later reversed on 26 April after strong backlash from civil society and media organizations. It was replaced by another decree forcing radio stations and television programmes to submit and uphold a 'letter of commitment' with the Ministry in charge of communication in exchange for being able to go on air, and maintained the ban on all radio and audiovisual programmes which include interventions likely to ‘threaten public order and security, to damage national unity or encourage civil disobedience’.
The threat to media freedom in Mozambique took a shocking turn on 23 August 2020 when a media house was petrol-bombed by a group of unidentified people. The group broke into the offices of the independent weekly newspaper Canal de Moçambique, doused them in petrol and set them alight with a Molotov cocktail, extensively destroying equipment, furniture and files.
The attack came four days after the newspaper published an investigative story alleging unethical procurement by politically connected individuals and senior government officials, involving natural gas companies in Cabo Delgado, at the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy.
In Somalia, journalists faced an increasingly repressive working environment. They were beaten, harassed, threatened, subjected to arbitrary arrests, and were intimidated by the authorities, including by police, military and other government officials throughout south central Somalia and in Puntland. Authorities also restricted access to information. Three journalists were killed in Somalia since last year by the armed group Al-Shabaab and by other unidentified individuals. Journalists also faced trumped up prosecutions in Mogadishu and in Garowe, Puntland. Two of the journalists Mohamed Abdiwahab Nur (Abuja) and Kilwe Adan Farah were subjected to military court prosecutions.
On 9 April 2020, Zambian authorities ordered the cancellation of independent television news channel Prime TV’s broadcasting licence. The decision was made after the station allegedly refused to air the government’s COVID-19 public awareness campaigns because it was owed money for airing previous state-sponsored advertisements.
Prime TV, which depends on advertising revenue to pay the salaries of its staff and other operational costs, remains closed.
In Zimbabwe, freelance journalist and anti-corruption activist, Hopewell Chin’ono, has been the subject of police intimidation and harassment, having been detained three times between July 2020 and January 2021. He has spent more than 80 days in detention for exposing government corruption and supporting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
On 28 April, the High Court quashed charges against Chin’ono of communicating false information following months of persecution. The court ruled that the law used by the police to arrest him in January no longer exists.
However, Chin’ono is still facing trial for alleged obstruction of justice on another case.
During COVID-19, security forces used restrictions as a pretext to justify the harassment and intimidation of journalists and other media workers. At least 25 journalists were assaulted and arbitrarily arrested and detained while working. Journalists were frequently ordered to delete their videos or photographs without a valid reason.
“A vibrant, independent and free press is the cornerstone of any free society. It allows for the free flow of information and ideas that build countries,” said Deprose Muchena.
“Authorities must do more than pay lip service to freedom of expression. They must protect journalists, guarantee media freedom and provide a remedy for those journalists whose rights have been violated.”