A seismic win for digital rights, mega pressure on Meta pays dividends, and journalists bear brunt of election fever

July 2022 in Africa: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Reyhana Masters, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

A supporter holds a painted portrait of Azimio La Umoja Coalition presidential candidate Raila Odinga during a campaign rally in Murang’a, 23 July 2022, ahead of Kenya’s August 2022 general election. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

The biggest victory on the continent this month was the 14 July ruling by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court in Abuja, declaring that the suspension of social media platform Twitter by the Nigerian government was unlawful. The numerous separate cases filed against Nigeria’s federal government by media rights groups, journalists, and individuals were consolidated into one suit.

The West African regional court’s decision was in favour of the applicants, who argued that their rights to freedom of expression and access to information had been violated when the federal government unilaterally shut down Twitter on 5 June 2021 and criminalised its use. The regional court went on to find Nigeria’s government had breached regional and international laws such as Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, when it instituted the Twitter blackout.

The court also ordered Nigeria’s government “to ensure the unlawful suspension would not reoccur and to take necessary steps to amend its laws to be in conformity with the rights and freedoms enshrined in the ACHPR and ICCPR.”

Meta’s public face versus its private practice

Human rights and freedom of expression advocates welcome the decision by Facebook’s parent company Meta and its moderation outsourcing firm, Sama, not to impose a gag order against Kenya-based whistleblower Daniel Motaung.

Sama’s chief marketing officer Suzin Wold’s email response to TIME’s story stated: “We have not filed nor do we plan to file a ‘gag order’ against Daniel Motaung.” This decision was conveyed soon after an open letter signed by trade unions, writers, lawyers, and advocates called on Facebook and Sama “to drop their attempt to silence whistleblower Motaung.”

Motaung, a South African who worked as a content moderator at the social media giant’s outsourcing company in Kenya, went public about the distressful working conditions he and his colleagues had faced. He was abruptly fired, while trying to organise workers into a union so as to collectively bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and mental health support.

Currently, Motaung is suing Facebook and Sama in a Kenyan court for subjecting him to forced labour and human trafficking. During a recent court appearance, lawyers acting for Facebook and Sama respectively urged the judge to “crack the whip”, in an attempt to prevent Motaung and his former colleagues from speaking about the case that was now before the courts. The judge refused to comply with the lawyers’ request, demanding proof that Motaung had breached Kenya’s sub judice rules.

Ironically, this took place in the same month Meta released its first Human Rights Report “inspired by the requirement under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that companies ‘know and show’ that they respect human rights.” Rights groups had criticised the report for not dealing with the real rights issues of monetising of people’s privacy, and the proliferation of discrimination and hate speech that pushed engagement on the platform.

Journalists bear brunt of election season

In the weeks prior to scheduled elections in Senegal, Kenya, and Angola, the media has been bearing the brunt of feverish electioneering. Partisan reporting by a few media outlets is juxtaposed against a disproportionate rise in attacks on journalists covering election-related events — perpetrated by party supporters on either side of the political divide.

Senegal

Alongside the significant increase in verbal and physical attacks since last year, the recent spike in assaults against the media compelled an alliance of Senegalese journalists’ associations, called the Press Actors Coordination (CAP), to push for a national dialogue.

Incidents include an assault by supporters of the Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) party on Ndeye Ngoné Diop, a journalist from DakarBuzz, and a video recording by Talla Sylla (the coordinator of the ruling party youth wing) calling for an arson attack on the privately-owned TV channel Wal Fadjri, while reporters from the privately owned Groupe Futurs Médias (GFM) TV channel were prevented from covering the preparations for an opposition party rally by some of the party’s members.

In addition to publishing the reporter’s manual by Senegal’s National Council for Broadcasting Regulation and a new French-language edition of the Handbook for Journalists during Elections, to support the work of journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also reminded authorities to “guarantee the safety of journalists, especially during a particularly sensitive electoral period that can give rise to tension and excesses.”

Kenya

The dominant feature of Kenya’s electoral landscape — a carryover from their 2017 elections — has been the alarming intensity of disinformation which IFEX member CIPESA warns is “fanning hate speech, threatening electoral integrity, and is expected to persist well beyond the polls.” As mentioned in last month’s Regional Brief, a detailed report by Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung focuses on TikTok, and highlights the shocking increase in videos containing hate speech and political disinformation in relation to the poll. Thrown into this mêlée is the burgeoning business of influencers offering their services to electoral candidates and contributing further to the damaging cycle of disinformation.

These and many hot button topics — land rights, the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, extra-judicial killings by police, forced evictions, corruption, and the rights of women and girls — have been brought to the fore during party rallies and political campaigning in the run-up to Kenya’s constitutionally mandated elections.

But as John Githongo, Kenya’s prominent anti-corruption activist and publisher of analytical online news publication The Elephant points out: “it would seem that Kenya is going into an election this August that’s largely about nothing. No big idea, no galvanising issue.”

On 19 May, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) put out a cautionary statement highlighting the increasing incidences of profiling of journalists and threats made against media outlets by politicians. Muthoki Mumo of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) spoke to a large number of Kenyan journalists who expressed their concerns and reinforced the assertions made by the MCK.

A media monitoring report by the MCK acknowledged improved ethical and professional standards of reporting “despite the interference of media ownership on framing and coverage of political stories.” It also pointed out that “the reporting by both the mainstream and community radio stations on both national and county and regional politics was skewed in favour of regional politics,” and there was a need for more issue-based coverage.

Angola

On the one hand, Angolan citizens are coming to terms with the death of former President Eduardo do Santos, and on the other, they are gearing up for their most competitive election to date. The presidential race will be contested by current president Joao Lourenco of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the United Patriotic Front (FPU) candidate, Adalberto da Costa Junior — and also the leader of National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Political tensions are on the rise and there are strong reservations about the 24 August polls being free or fair. Presenting himself as a man of change, President Lourenço promised significant reforms to Angola’s system of governance and its economy, but these changes have not come through.

As World Politics Review reports:

“It is in this context of protest and repressionthat the media environment is once againbeingcompletely muzzled by the state, which owns and controls most media outlets with nationwide reach. The government shut down and confiscated all private television companies and some radio stations during its anti-corruption crusade, with state-owned media outlets essentially serving as propaganda vehicles for the ruling party.”

Paula Cristina Roque, political analyst and author of Governing in the Shadows: Angola’s Securitised State, believes that the presidency’s efforts to maintain power at all costs are central to how the Angolan state is run — more so than actual governance of the country or even the interests of the ruling MPLA.

With the harassment of journalists on the rise, Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa programme coordinator, has pointed to the need for reporters to have “unfettered access to election rallies and events,” and the ability “to work safely and without being threatened or harmed.”

In brief

South African outlets dominated the 2022 winners of the WAN-IFRA African digital media awards announced on 12 July. Recipients included Media 24, Daily Maverick, Food for Mzansi and Arena Holdings. Ghana’s Pulse Instagram won the award for Best Audience Engagement.

Malawi’s Attorney General Thabo Chakaka-Nyirenda gave notice that two bills that will repeal sedition would be tabled in parliament. The bills will amend two laws — the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act, and the Penal Code.

Freedom of expression was dealt another blow in eSwatini after online publication Swaziland News and its editor Zweli Dlamini were branded ‘terrorist entities’ by the Swaziland government. The journalist, who fled his home country in fear of his life, is accused of inciting violence and attempting to illegally remove a legitimate government.

Five staff members from Nigerian online news outlet People’s Gazette were detained by police in Abuja, in relation to a criminal defamation complaint made by a former high ranking military official against the publication. The police had been looking for the outlet’s Managing Director Samule Ogundipe and the author of the article, Adefemola Akintade, who were not in the office at the time of the police raid. The arrested staff — John Adenekan, Ameedat Adeyemi, Grace Oke, Sammy Ogbu and Justina Tayani — were eventually released that same evening. In condemning the raid, Media Rights Agenda called on Nigeria’s federal government “to rein in the law enforcement agency,” warning that it risked becoming a tool for the powerful to harass journalists and media organizations.

Also in Nigeria: A year after journalist Agba Jalingo was awarded US$73,000 in compensation by the ECOWAS Court of Justice for his unlawful incarceration, the Nigerian government is yet to honour the ruling.

Danny Kapambwe and Justine Chimpinde were sentenced to 24 months in prison with hard labour by a magistrate in Luapula province after being convicted of defaming Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema in a TikTok video. Both men pled guilty and begged for forgiveness, but were still denied clemency.

A Chinese vlogger who was exposed by Runako Celina and Henry Mhango on BBC Africa Eye for exploiting Malawian children to produce racist videos was arrested in Zambia and extradited to Malawi to face charges.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on July 28, 2022.

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IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org

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IFEX

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org