Africa: Eastern and Southern Africa: Journalists in the crosshairs amid ongoing media crackdown

Authorities in Eastern and Southern Africa continued to impose severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press over the past year, Amnesty International said on World Press Freedom Day.

The human rights organization documented widespread intimidation, harassment and detention of journalists in countries across the region. Authorities continued to brutally attack and repress those who dared to report allegations of corruption and human rights violations.

“Threats to the right to freedom of expression and the media continued unabated across the East and Southern Africa region over the past year. Speaking out against or scrutinizing government policies, actions or inaction, or publicly sharing information considered harmful to the government carried the risk of arrest, arbitrary detention or death,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Speaking out against or scrutinizing the government’s policies, actions, or inaction, or publicly sharing information considered harmful to the government carried the risk of arrest, arbitrary detention, or death. Tigere Chagutah Regional Director, Amnesty International, ESARO

Amnesty International also documented increased intentional disruption of internet connectivity and the enactment of strict cybersecurity laws aimed at silencing the media and controlling the dissemination of information.

Hiding behind the “law”: silencing journalists by all means

Across East and Southern Africa, authorities used national security laws, including counterterrorism and cybersecurity laws, to undermine the right to freedom of expression, punish journalists, and suppress press freedom.

In Madagascar, the Cybercrime Code and the Communication Code have forced journalists to self-censor for fear of reprisals. Broad and vaguely defined provisions in the laws, such as “attacks on state security”, “defamation”, “spreading fake news” and “incitement to hatred”, have been used to intimidate, harass and attack journalists.

In February, Zimbabwean authorities banned two journalists from covering government functions in the Midlands province. The Midlands Minister of State and Devolution Affairs singled out Sydney Mubaiwa (Mirror Midlands Bureau Chief) and NewsDay’s Stephen Chadenga who were at a meeting organized by the Gender Commission and ordered them not to attend future government engagements.

In May, Zimbabwe enacted the Criminal Law Amendment (Codification and Reform) Act (Patriot Act), which threatens press freedom by criminalizing intentional harm to Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and national interest.” Journalists attending a meeting where there is “reason to believe” that its purpose is to “consider or plan an armed intervention” could be charged even when they only attend for the purpose of information.

In South Sudan, Amnesty International documented intimidation, harassment and censorship of journalists, including cases where security officers removed newspaper articles they considered critical of the transitional government, prevented journalists from covering some political parties, confiscated accreditation documents and equipment of journalists, and suspended the operations of some media outlets.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the authorities continued their relentless attacks on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in the context of the general elections held in December 2023, intercommunal violence in certain regions and armed escalation in the eastern provinces. .

Over the past year, authorities arbitrarily shut down a dozen media outlets and programs, under accusations ranging from “spreading false rumors” to “inciting revolt against established authorities” and “defamation.”

In September 2023, journalist Stanis Bujakera was arrested and prosecuted for “spreading false rumors” and “forgery” following the publication by Jeune Afrique of an article implicating the security services in the murder of politician Chérubin Okende.

In March 2024, Bujakera was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison, despite authorities failing to prove any criminal offense or liability in the case. He was finally released from prison because he had already been detained for more than six months. At least three more journalists are currently detained on trumped-up charges across the country.

In Burundi, journalist Floriane Irangabiye is serving a ten-year prison sentence for critical comments she made about the Burundi government during an online radio show. In January 2023, the Mukaza High Court found her guilty of “endangering the integrity of the national territory.” She has appealed twice unsuccessfully and the Supreme Court upheld her conviction on February 13, 2024.

In Zambia, On April 13, police officers arrested Rodgers Mwimba and Innocent Phiri in the town of Kafue, south of the capital, Lusaka, while filming an altercation between police officers and two opposition party leaders. They were detained at the Kafue police station, forced to delete their images and released two hours later.

In Malawi, Macmillan Mhone was arrested and charged with “publication of news likely to cause fear and alarm” for a story he wrote in August 2023 about the fraudulent activities of a businessman accused of conspiracy to defraud the Malawi government.

Amid persistent armed conflict since 2020, Ethiopian authorities used state of emergency laws to arbitrarily arrest journalists. Since August 2023, at least nine journalists have been detained and five remain in custody. Among them, three face terrorism charges, which could carry the death penalty if convicted.

In Somalia, journalists were subjected to threats, harassment, intimidation, beatings, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. In February 2023, a Mogadishu court sentenced Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, journalist and general secretary of the Somali Journalists Union (SJS), to two months in prison for “disobeying government orders” after the SJS held a press conference to protest against directives issued by the ministry of information regarding coverage of an offensive against the armed group al-shabab.