Freedom of expression and Covid-19 in Africa

Under the guise of tackling Covid-19, many African governments are stifling freedom of expression, restricting access to information and undermining the basic human rights of ordinary citizens.

The majority of African countries have struggled to tackle Covid-19 because of a lack capable health infrastructure, medical equipment and expertise, and finances. Many African governments are clamping down on the media, marginalising civil society and keeping a veil of silence on the spread of the virus as well as their capacity and resources to combat the virus. Although fake news is harmful and should be dealt with, some African governments appear to have deliberately designated as “fake news” the legitimate news coverage of the coronavirus spread.

Some governments are using the threat of Covid-19 in the same way they used the threat of terrorism – to crush legitimate criticism, requests for access to information, and freedom of expression. In some cases, governments are laying criminal charges against reporters asking critical questions about their handling of Covid-19. Some governments have deliberately not provided information to those media organisations and journalists perceived to have been critical of the government in the past.

In many African countries, security forces enforcing compliance of Covid-19 lockdown measures have used violence against those perceived not to be complying, thus undermining basic human rights.

Restricting reporting on governments’ handling of Covid-19

Madagascar has banned all radio phone-in programmes in a bid to restrict listeners wanting to criticise the government’s handling of Covid-19. On 20 March, the Egyptian government expelled The Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson for allegedly basing a story one “one source” and for “deliberate deception” after she quoted local medical researchers who questioned the reliability of the government-issued count of those infected with Covid-19.

Egypt, for example, has blocked or restricted access to a number of news websites and social media accounts since early March, for allegedly spreading “rumours” about Covid-19 and for “disturbing public order”. Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) has not disclosed the “rumours” these websites and social media accounts were allegedly guilty of spreading.

Since 2018, the SCMR has closed down online platforms and social media accounts that were critical of the government under the guise that they allegedly promoted “terrorism”. More than 500 media outlets, websites and personal social media accounts have been closed down or censured by the Egyptian government, for allegedly spreading “false information” or promoting “terrorism”.

Then on 15 March, the online site of the daily newspaper El Gomhoria El Youm, called Huna Aden, was told that the site would be blocked for six months for allegedly spreading false “rumours” about Covid-19. Several Facebook and Twitter accounts which commented on the government’s readiness to tackle the pandemic or the shortage of critical medicine were also blocked. The government alleged that the platforms were “inciting” the “violation of the preventive measures taken by the state”. The SCMR is considering blocking 12 more websites.

Restricting the operational freedom of journalists

Many countries have restricted the operational freedom of journalists. On 24 March 2020, police frm the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) deliberately ran down television journalist Tholi Totali Glody in Likasi, the second largest city of the country’s Haut-Katanga province. Glody, who works for Alfajari TV, a local station, was reporting on compliance with the lockdown decreed by the provincial government on 22 March. Glody was confronted by two policemen for covering the lockdown and then chased and knocked off his motorcycle.

Arnaud Froger, the head of the African Desk of Reporters Without Borders, said: “We urge the Congolese authorities to do what many other countries have already done, which is to include journalists in the official list of persons allowed to circulate freely to do their job while respecting the recommended basic public health measures. Attacking reporters at such a time not only violates press freedom but also undermines the ongoing response. Those responsible for this act of violence must be identified and punished.”

On 24 March, the Nigerian government suspended 92 journalists’ access to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential villa where the government’s regular briefings are often held. Media freedom organisations say the government “has decided to limit access to the president’s office to a handful of media outlets that are nearly all controlled by the government or supportive of it”.

The Nigerian government said the suspensions of the journalists’ access to the president was part of Covid-19 public health restrictions in effect since 25 March, which limit public assemblies to prevent the spread of the virus. Angela Quintal, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ Africa Program coordinator, said: “Nigeria’s new restrictions on assembly and movement impose unnecessary burdens on journalists … All efforts should be made to enable the press to do their work and cover the coronavirus crisis safely and without risk of official sanction.”

On 9 April, the Independent Broadcasting Authority of Zambia, the country’s broadcasting regulator, cancelled the television license of Prime TV, an independent broadcaster, instructing it to stop broadcasting immediately. The Independent Broadcasting Authority did not specify whether any action of Prime TV has led to this controversial ruling, but said it was in the “interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order”. The police arrived at Prime TV’s offices in Lusaka, the capital, forced staff to leave and told them not to return for work as of that day.

The cancellation of Prime TV’s broadcasting license preceded months of conflict between the channel and the government. On 13 March Gerald Shawa, the Prime TV owner, in his capacity as the chairman of local media organisation umbrella body the Zambia Independent Media Association, issued a statement stating that independent media organisations would not air the government’s Covid-19 awareness campaign programmes at no cost, because the government owed them large amounts in unpaid advertising revenue.

The Zambian Broadcasting Services Minister Dora Siliya lambasted Prime TV for being “unpatriotic”, banned government officials from interacting with its journalists and banned its journalists from attending government events. On 27 March, Top Star Communication, the partly-state-owned signal carrier, told Prime TV it would stop carrying its broadcasts. On 1 April, Prime TV filed a petition against the government at the Lusaka High Court, in order to have its broadcasting license reinstated. Prime TV says the cancellation of its broadcasting license by the Zambian government was in retaliation for its independent coverage of government activities.

The Law Association of Zambia, an independent professional body, was critical of the government’s cancellation of Prime TV’s broadcasting licence, saying it was unlawful, as it “raises a lot of speculation and reasonable doubts about the professionalism of the [Independent Broadcasting Authority]”. The Association said it was concerned that the Zambian police could take control of a media organisation’s offices “without a court order or any evidence of criminal activities perpetrated by Prime TV.”

Using Covid-19 to attack critics

On 26 March, journalist for state broadcaster Télé Tchad Aly Mahamat Bello, his cameraman Abakar Mahamad Seid and their driver were assaulted and then detained by the Chad Police Mobile Intervention Unit (GMIP) in the capital, N’Djamena, while reporting on government Covid-19 enforcement measures. The Union of Chadian Journalists said the three were interrogated for three hours before being released.

On March 27, Ethiopian federal police arrested Yayesew Shimelis in the town of Legetafo. Shimelis is a columnist for the independent Feteh magazine, host of a weekly political programme on Tigray provincial government-owned Tigray TV, and administers the Ethio Forum YouTube Channel. He was arrested for a post on his YouTube channel and Facebook page in which he said that the Ethiopian government had told religious leaders to prepare 200,000 graves to accommodate deaths from the Covid-19.

In a Facebook post the before Shimelis was arrested, the Ethiopian Ministry of Health alleged the report was untrue and that it was a deliberate attempt by Shimelis to misinform the public. On 29 March, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office published a statement on Facebook saying that the federal police “have been mandated to take action against individuals and groups unleashing terror upon people’s health and sense of safety.” The statement said that the government had closed down his Facebook page, and that he would be tried under the criminal code.

The national government had been targeting Shimelis for his critical reportage, since long before the outbreak of Covid-19. In the week before his arrest, he received a number of calls from the federal police questioning him about an interview he conducted with a former Ethiopian foreign minister, which was deemed critical by the government. In early January 2020, Shimelis was detained by police at the Bole International airport in Addis Ababa and questioned specifically about previous journalism reports.

“Imprisoning a journalist at this time, when the public needs information rather than censorship, is likely to discourage critical reporting and dissenting opinions,” said Muthoki Mumo, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Sub-Saharan Africa representative. “Ethiopian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Yayesew Shimelis and guarantee that they will not censor reporting on the coronavirus.”

On 21 March, members of the Victorious Army International Church in Ogba, Nigeria attacked journalists who accompanied the country’s Rapid Response Squad who were monitoring compliance to social gathering assemblies to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The members of the congregation took the mobile phones of several journalists. The church members attacked Ivy Kanu, a journalist from Nigerian 24-hour channel the TVC news,  as well as the cameraman accompanying her, and tried to prevent them from broadcasting the incident.

The government of Algeria has been accused by human rights commentators of using the Covid-19 crisis to “settle scores” with critical journalists who have been reporting on anti-government protests that preceded the coronavirus crisis. The government has charged critical journalists, human rights activists and opposition leaders for criminal transgressions.

Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for the French broadcaster TV5 Monde as well as an editor at Algerian publication the Casbah Tribune, was arrest on 29 March for allegedly “inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity”. The government is charging him for criminal activities. In the past, Drareni has been arrested for his coverage of anti-government protests which had been staged every Friday for more than a year, before it was stopped because of Covid-19.

In February 2020, Amnesty International said the Algerian government was pursuing a “campaign of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions” of journalists, civil society activists and opposition leaders for covering anti-government protests or for participation in these protests. These journalists have been “detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”. One such journalist is Sofiane Merakchi, an Algiers correspondent for al-Mayadeen, who was arrested on 26 September 2019 charged with taking, publishing and distributing images of anti-government protests for foreign media.

State violence against citizens

In Ghana, police have been accused of assaulting civilians when enforcing compliance to the country’s lockdown. In one instance police horsewhipped local government official Adu Poku Christian, who was distributing face masks, water and sanitisers, as well as a journalist accompanying him. Adu Poku Christian was the district chief executive (DCE) for Afigya Kwabre South in the Ashanti Region.

Then Kenyan police and army have been accused of enforcing Covid-19 compliance with violent force. In one incident, police in Mathare, a settlement in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, fired tear gas, shotguns and baton-charge people who they perceived not following lockdown procedures. Due to poverty and the lack of government information, many residents were unaware there were lockdown in place. Police brutality in the Kiamaiko informal settlement led to the death of a 13-year old boy, who was hit in the stomach by a police bullet while watching the police clampdown from a balcony. At some point, there were more deaths resulting from police violence to enforce curfews than from Covid-19 itself. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has since apologised for the use of excessive of violence by the police.

On 23 March, Ugandan soldiers enforcing a Covid-19 nighttime curfew beat locals not adhering to the curfew with batons in the Mityana district. On 26 March, Ugandan police shot two construction workers, Alex Oryem and Kassim Ssebudde, who were riding a motorcycle taxi in Mukono, outside Kampala, in contravention of a ban on motorcycle transport with passengers. On the same day, police used sticks to beat people selling products in markets in downtown Kampala. On 3 March the police accompanied by local residents attacked a shelter for homeless gay, lesbian and transgender youth in Wakiso, outside Kampala. They beat residents of the shelter with batons, clubs and fists and arrested 23 inhabitants. The police claimed residents of the shelter were contravening Covid-19 rules by assembling at a shelter. Police charged them with “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease” and “disobedience of lawful orders”. Uganda’s Human Rights and Protection Forum said it believed the shelter’s inhabitants were attacked for their sexual orientation.

On 30 March, Army Chief of Defence Forces David Muhoozi apologised to three victims of police beatings – Hadijah Aloyo, Christine Awori and Safia Achaya – and promised that the military would discipline soldiers responsible for brutality. Ugandan Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde said in a statement that security forces should “refrain from beating people. Please explain to them through the community radio towers in the local language”.

Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Security forces have been using excessive force to enforce the government’s Covid-19 measures. As we face an unprecedented public health challenge, it is all the more important for the government to ensure that it does not become a human rights crisis.” Nyeko added: “The government should immediately instruct all enforcement officers not to use violence and publicly hold those who do commit abuses to account”.

Conclusion

The reporting by the media is essential in this, the biggest health catastrophe in generations. The media is important to raise public awareness, spread information about official measures to combat Covid-19 and in general through its reporting to help to combat the spread of the virus.

Amnesty International stated that just as African governments have an obligation to “ensure preventive care, goods, services” are available to all citizens, they equally must provide “accessible, accurate and evidence-based information” on Covid-19. Human Rights Watch rightly stated: “The scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic clearly rises to the level of a public health threat that could justify restrictions on certain rights, such as those that result from the imposition of quarantine or isolation limiting freedom of movement.

“At the same time, careful attention to human rights such as non-discrimination and human rights principles such as transparency and respect for human dignity can foster an effective response amidst the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results in times of crisis and limit the harms that can come from the imposition of overly broad measures that do not meet (human rights) criteria”.

It is important for African governments to allow citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and for journalists to report without undue restrictions. In the enforcement of Covid-19 measures, security forces should under no circumstances undermine basic human rights, impinge on individual dignity or discriminate on race, religion or class. Basic human rights should at all times inform African governments’ responses to Covid-19. The vulnerable, poor and homeless should be given particular protection.

The media must continue to report on efforts to combat Covid-19, providing information to the public but also holding governments accountable in tackling the virus and in upholding basic human rights. Similarly, civil society organisations must continue to hold government accountable and to support citizens where they can during these perilous times.

References

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.