Following “deep concern” over the increasing intolerance of independent and critical journalism by some governments in Africa, the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) has called on security agencies on the continent to do their work independently and professionally by resisting illegal orders from the Executive to violate the rights of journalists and activists. It also urged Judiciaries in Africa to uphold press freedom and human rights by rejecting frivolous charges against journalists and dissidents.
AFEX also called on the states concerned to unconditionally release journalists being held in their countries, urging African governments generally to respect the right to freedom of expression and divergent opinion in line with their obligation under their national constitutions and other regional and international frameworks to which they are signatories.
AFEX reminded African countries that: “The right to freedom of expression and access to information is enshrined in the national constitutions of several African countries who are also signatories to other regional and International frameworks such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights.”
It noted that a series of press freedom violations in five countries in Central, East and Southern Africa recorded since January 2019 appears to call into doubt governments’ commitment to upholding the above frameworks. It said within the period under reference, four journalists had been arbitrarily arrested and detained, another sentenced to a year in prison while one media house has been suspended for critical reportage about state officials.
Citing these series of violations, AFEX said state security agents on March 21, 2019 arrested and detained Zenzele Ndebele, a civil society activist and freelance journalist at the central police station in Harare. Ndebele’s arrest followed the discovery of used teargas canisters after police searched his car when he arrived at the State House for a meeting between President Emmerson Mnangagwa and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe.
Again, on January 5, 2019 military officers arrested Mozambican journalist, Amade Abubacar who works with state-owned community radio station, Rádio e Televisao Comunitária Nacedje de Macomia (Community Radio and Television of Macomia) while photographing internally displaced people fleeing from terrorist attacks in the Cabo Delgado region located in northern Mozambique into Macomia. The Cabo Delgado region has faced invasions by unidentified groups since October 2017.
Another journalist, from the same community radio station where Abubacar works, Germano Daniel Adriano was also arrested on February 18, 2019 by military personnel in the same region for covering similar attacks against residents of that part of the country. According to a statement from AFEX member, Mozambique chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), both journalists have since been charged with “violation of state secrets using a computer” and “public instigation to crime using a computer.”
On February 22, 2019, agents of the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) arrested and detained incommunicado Osman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of the independent Sudanese newspaper, Al-Tayyar. Although no charges have been brought against Mirghani, the authorities have continued to detain him. The journalist’s ordeal is believed to be in connection with comments he made that seemed to support the ongoing anti-government protests in Sudan. Quoting its sources in Sudan, AFEX said, Mirghani’s health is deteriorating as he is unable to access adequate medical attention while in detention.
Steeve Mwanyo Iwewe, a journalist who works with Radio-Television Sarah (RTS) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was on March 1, 2019, sentenced to a year in prison after a ‘hasty’ trial by the Mbandaka Peace Tribunal. Iwewe, who was accused of “insulting” Bobo Boloko Bolumbu, the governor of the north-western province of Ecuador was also ordered to pay a fine of $200 to the complainant.
According to AFEX, unlike the three cases reported above which involved journalists, the fifth violation which was recorded in Zambia targeted a critical media outlet. Again, unlike the earlier cases where security agents were the major perpetrators of the violations, this time the violator was the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the institution mandated to regulate and protect the media in Zambia. On March 4, 2019 the IBA ordered the suspension of Prime Television for 30 days after it accused the station of exhibiting “unprofessionalism in its broadcasting.”
“Prior to its suspension, Prime TV station was subjected to series of attacks including verbal and physical assaults from high ranking government officials following the station’s reportage of the recent parliamentary by-elections in Sesheke which was marred by violence,” AFEX submitted.
AFEX noted that these incidents cited highlight the increasing intolerance of independent and critical journalism by some governments on the continent which is a thing of deep concern to it.
The group condemned the increasing rate at which governments on the continent are quick to penalise journalists who are critical of their policies or practices and called African governments to respect the right to freedom of expression and divergent opinion in line with their obligations under their national constitutions and other regional and international frameworks to which they are signatories.