“Democracies Gone Amok”: MISA’s State of Media Freedom in Southern Africa Paints Picture of Trouble

23 May 2018
Former President Jacob Zuma with former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at the inauguration of the President-elect of the United Republic of Tanzania John Pembe Magufuli.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) recently released their detailed and eminently readable 2017 State of Media Freedom in Southern Africa report, So This Is Democracy?. The report shows, among other things, that the media landscape in southern Africa, in concomitance with its growth and diversification in platform and reach, is becoming ever more complicated – especially where it comes to media law, and the subtle suppression and outright censorship of certain media and media workers. “A landscape where,” as the report mentions, “the insidious and subtle erosion of free speech rights is compounded both by the media’s struggle for economic survival and its relevance to citizens who all too easily disown their media and the critical role it plays in keeping power to account.”

Throughout the year, MISA issues media alerts in eleven categories, relating to the violations, impingements and victories of media freedom in the region. The 2017 MISA report catalogues these alerts for the preceding year, as well as giving more detailed views over each country in southern Africa, written by media freedom experts in or associated with the respective country.

In pursuit of media freedom in southern Africa, PEN SA is today posting both MISA’s regional overview and overview of South Africa on our site. (The report on South Africa is written by PEN SA’s Vice President, Raymond Louw.)

We are also hosting the report for all to download and read. To download and read the full report, please click here.

MISA’s 2017 Regional Overview of Media Freedom in Southern Africa

MISA’s appropriately selected theme for 2017 – ‘lights out on democracy’ – provides an ideal framework to interrogate the democratic project in southern Africa. A closer look reveals an environment for media and citizenry that is highly volatile, hotly contested and often under pressure. A landscape where the insidious and subtle erosion of free speech rights is compounded both by the media’s struggle for economic survival and its relevance to citizens who all too easily disown their media and the critical role it plays in keeping power to account.

Tanzania and Zambia stand out as democracies gone amok.

The Zambian political and social landscape was peppered with incidents ranging from the death of a student from Copperbelt University who was injured by police during a protest, to the bombing of a privately-owned media house in Lusaka and the declaration of a state of emergency following a spate of arson attacks on public installations.

President John Magufuli’s crack down on all criticism and dissent is both subtle and overt and weighted against popular political and economic reforms. This makes it dif cult for advocates to navigate the terrain of harnessing support to ght for fundamental rights when Magufuli’s scal policy decisions re ect the strengthening of an economic sector. Citizens and stakeholders overlook infringements on freedom of expression and media freedoms. His shrewd skill in crafting law under the guise of regulation is in fact constricting the space for opinions and in essence is creating a police state. Opposition politicians and journalists including the exiled Ansbert Ngurumo and the still-missing Azory Gwanda are on a growing list of the dead, disappeared and detained.

Across several borders in Zimbabwe, a major political shift with the removal of former President Mugabe in a November 2017 ‘intervention’ by Zimbabwe’s defence forces has so emboldened security forces – not only in Zimbabwe – that there is a legitimate concern for the abuse of power or lack of accountability on the part of the security forces. Supposed actions in the public interest or national security increasingly appear to be motivated by personal gain and consolidation of power in the securocrat.

Free Expression Online

The inclination by African governments to shut down the internet or suspend social media sites and messaging apps continued in 2017. Whilst fewer internet shutdowns were recorded in 2017 as compared to 2016 (twelve instances of intentional internet or mobile network disruptions in nine countries in 2017, compared to eleven in 2016), Quartz Africa suggests that in 2017 governments either did so more frequently or over longer periods of time.

Internet shutdowns impede human rights such as freedom of expression and assembly, access to information and political rights. They also come at a huge cost to African economies. It is estimated that these digital interruptions came at a cost of nearly US Dollar 11 million last year.

Breaches to internet freedom thrive and ourish when there is no coordinated citizen and active society response. Digital rights activists warn that full-blown internet shutdowns for instance do not just happen – they usually have been preceded by erstwhile “routine” acts such like mandatory SIM card registrations, without the corresponding legislation to protect citizens’ data . There are at least nine (9) southern African countries where mandatory SIM card registrations are required – Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – and legislation to that effect is looming in the rest.

Laws, Laws, and More Laws

Under the guise of ensuring protection of citizens from computer related crimes, numerous governments across southern Africa either tabled or enacted legislation to regulate online content. In most instances such laws were poorly conceived, often violating citizens’ privacy and criminalising free speech. For example, Tanzania tabled the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017 that called for the registration of blogs and online forums, some of whom were already being stifled and battling the government in court.

Analysts predict that South Africa’s 2017 Cybercrimes and Cyber Security Bill is likely to lead to further deterioration in media freedom. The draft affords opportunity for repressive implementation, as well as enhanced investigative and surveillance powers for security agents. Angola’s Social Communication Legislative Package – a suite of five laws – among others provides for statutory regulation and criminalises free speech, and thus presents a serious threat to free expression and access to information.

MISA Zimbabwe has protested the government’s proposed merging of three cyber bills into one bill as the grouping of fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, access to information with consumer rights and cyber security into one piece of legislation, has the potential of undermining the protection of those rights. Namibia could learn from this experience. Local activists are campaigning for the separation of electronic transactions concerns from cybercrime elements in the country’s proposed Electronic Transactions and Cybercrime Bill.

Journalist Safety

Whilst southern Africa recorded fewer incidents of attacks against journalists in 2017, reports indicate a steep increase in the brutality of those attacks. Many such attacks emanated from successful anti-media campaigns by populist political and social leaders. Campaigns designed to sow distrust of mainstream media culminated in physical violence especially against journalists covering street protests or demonstrations.

Strengthening Norms and Standards

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Lawrence Mute, in November 2017 indicated that he would prioritise the revision and/or expansion of the ACHPR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, 2002. The main objective of the Declaration is to elaborate on the scope and content of Article 9 of the African Charter, which guarantees the right to information and freedom of expression, and it has been acknowledged that over time major pertinent issues have emerged, which are either not covered at all or are covered insuf ciently in the Declaration.

Civil society groups have called for the inclusion of emerging internet rights and access to information in the proposed revision of the Declaration.

Not All Is Lost

Namibia hosted its inaugural internet governance forum in September 2017. Efforts to promote mutli-stakeholder policy-making in Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) are bearing fruit.

Malawi’s access to information law was promulgated in January 2017, over twelve years after it was introduced. The law facilitates access to information about elected of cials and government institutions.

The change of guard in South Africa ushered in President Cyril Ramaphosa who appears more committed to an open society than former President Zuma. Looming threats of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal which would inevitably usurp the self-regulatory functions of the Press Council appear to have been abated.

To download and read the full report, please click here.

This report and excerpts are distributed under a CC A-NC-SA 3.0 Unported Licence. Image by the Government of South Africa.