The Regional Governing Council of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) on August 29, 2014, released a statement which expressed grave concern over the continued obstruction of media freedom and freedom of expression in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region. These, it said are demonstrated by the restrictive legislation and misuse of legislation like criminal defamation laws, unwillingness to pass positive media policies and legislation such as access to information laws, and violations perpetrated against media workers and activists in the region.
MISA expressed its sadness over the restrictive trend over the past years and the increased violence and threats against media workers in the region. MISA called on governments and authorities to respect the rights of media workers and to repeal laws being used to unfairly detain journalists and media workers, and prevent them from performing their duties.
It expressed outrage over the sentencing of the editor of independent Swazi magazine The Nation, Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko to two years in prison, without the option of fine on July 25, 2014 in Mbabane, Swaziland.
The harsh sentences were passed on Makhubu and Maseko following their conviction on contempt of court. They were charged on July 17, 2014 for separate news articles that they wrote criticising the chief justice of Swaziland.
According to MISA: “The ruling is unreasonably severe and is clearly intended to send a message to those who might contemplate future criticism of Swaziland’s judiciary. The ruling will undoubtedly instill self-censorship among Swazi journalists.”
MISA urged the Judiciary to respect the rule of law and the human rights of Swazi citizens, to maintain its independence and to refrain from engaging in the misuse of its judicial structures to settle personal scores.
MISA also expressed deep concerns over the continued use of archaic laws criminalising expression and impeding journalists from doing their jobs without obstruction or fear of being threatened or arrested.
According to MISA, “We urge caution, for example, in celebrating Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court ruling on 22 July, decriminalising the publishing of falsehoods. The provision was declared unconstitutional only as far as the former Constitution is concerned. This means the law remains firmly unchanged in the statute books and can still be used to punish offenders. The judgment also creates uncertainty as to the constitutionality of this provision under the new Constitution. We hope, however, the Executive will take on board the observations made by the Constitutional Court that criminalisation of expression, be it in terms of ‘false’ news or criminal defamation offences, is retrogressive and impinges on the exercise of freedom of expression and media freedom, and will move to retract such laws.”
MISA further stated the need for a number of countries in the region to make progress in their processes for implementing access to information (ATI) legislation. The group said it is encouraged by the Malawian Government’s adoption of a Policy on Access to Information in January 2014 and the Mozambique Parliamentary Assembly’s recent approval of an ATI Bill in August 2014. MISA hopes that these developments will pave the way for enacting ATI legislation in Mozambique and Malawi, and called on the governments of Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia to expedite the adoption of access to information laws in their countries.
At MISA’s 2013 Annual General Meeting (AGM), it urged the President of South Africa not to sign into law the Protection of State Information Bill which, in its view, undermines the right of access to information guaranteed by the Constitution of the country. MISA noted with concern that this Bill is still under consideration in 2014 and therefore, is a continuing threat looming over the media and all South African citizens.
MISA condemned efforts to inhibit freedom of expression and access to information through ICT platforms, including the misuse of legislation such as national security laws, to impose restrictions on the use of online platforms. MISA said it intends to continue to work closely with other concerned organisations to campaign for freedom of expression online and to participate in the drafting of an African Declaration on Internet Rights to ensure respect for human rights in the online arena.