Ray of hope in Zambia, shadow over north-eastern DRC, and the need for stronger whistleblower protection

August 2021 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.

Supporters of Zambian President-elect for the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) Hakainde Hichilema wear party regalia, in Lusaka, Zambia, 16 August 2021, MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

Zambia’s election restores hope

The peaceful transfer of power in Zambia following opposition presidential candidate Haikande Hichelema’s victorious win over incumbent President Edgar Lungu in the 12 August election restored some hope. It was a far cry from the excessive violence and disruption that people were expecting.

Among the many vital takeaways from the election is that youth are at the centre of this turning point. It is undoubtedly the country’s youth who cast the deciding ballots in an election which saw the opposition leader win with an unassailable landslide of almost a million votes more than Lungu. Over half of the country’s seven million registered voters were under 35 years of age, and the voter turnout of 70% was the highest since the first multi-party elections in 1991.

This is despite “the throttling and subsequent internet disruptions in Zambia on the day of elections” which IFEX member the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) described as “deplorable, given that elections are at the core of the exercise of democracy and respect of citizens’ rights.”

There were a number of issues that drove the populace, and especially young voters, to the polls — a collapsing economy resulting in job losses, bleak employment prospects for an increasingly growing young population, endemic and systemic corruption, and a declining health system.

Attempts to coerce the population into allowing the status quo to continue have been marked by violence, heavy handed control, and restrictive regulation.

Amnesty International’s report: Ruling By Fear And Repression meticulously details years of “an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights,” along with the curtailment of rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the jailing of opposition leaders and activists jailed. The clampdown on the media sector, which began even before the 2016 elections and continued throughout the years, includes the closure of print publications, the cancellation of a private broadcaster’s licence, harassment and intimidation of journalists and the development of a policy framework that has been restrictive and curtails both media freedom and freedom of expression.

This was a point that was also made by MISA in its observer mission statement: “the failure to critically address and reform existing laws such as the Public Order Act (1955); Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, the Penal Code Act (1938) and the recently promulgated Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act among others is an unfortunate drawback that might have serious repercussions on how the forthcoming elections are conducted.”

There are indications that all this may change if President Hichelema keeps the promise he made during his inaugural address: “it is a new dawn. The Fourth Estate, the media will be freed.”

So with President Hichelema saying and doing all the right things, it has us wondering. Is Zambia truly on a new trajectory?

North-eastern DRC gone dark

A dark shadow was cast over the month of August when two journalists — Héritier Magayane and Joël Musavuli — were brutally murdered, within a space of eight days, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The body of Magayane, who worked for state broadcaster Congolese National Radio and Television (RTNC), was found in North Kivu province. Musavuli and his wife were assaulted and killed in their home in Ituri province.

Magayane was an ardent peace activist, who hosted programmes aimed specifically at young people that called for harmony in his strife-torn area. According to a military administrator, the 26-year-old broadcaster had received a call to meet someone, and was killed when he reached his destination in Bunyangula.

The fatal attack on Musavali, the director of Biakato Community Radio and Television, follows a progression of threats following his investigations and subsequent programmes about armed groups in the area, as well as military operations in the province.

The region where the two journalists resided has been at the centre of conflict for over a decade. This is because, as, ReliefWeb (an online publication by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reveals: “the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is extremely rich in Coltan (Columbite-Tantalite), a rare metallic ore used for the production of electronic goods of mass consumption, such as mobile phones, laptops and videogame consoles, whose profits have fuelled the largest conflict in modern African history.”

Contestation over land and minerals has pitted militant groups and criminal networks against each other, with local communities caught up in the crossfire. The ensuing humanitarian crisis resulted in President Félix Tshisekedi placing both North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri province under a state of siege in May this year.

According to a Bloomberg report: “The state of siege allows for increased deployment of security personnel, monitoring and censorship of communications, restrictions on movement, and additional powers to conduct searches, establish checkpoints, arrest and imprison those suspected of having intentions to harm national security.”

Earlier in the month, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay put out two different statements condemning the assassination of the two journalists and called on authorities to investigate the murder of Musavuli and his wife. In a joint statement, ACHPR (African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to information Jamesina King and the Commissioner responsible for the DRC, Marie Louise Abomo, reminded the government of its continental obligation to protect journalists and to create an environment where journalists can practice their profession freely.

Local media advocacy organisation and IFEX member Journaliste en Danger, which has consistently been reporting on the perils journalists in the area face, recently wrote to Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde to dispatch an expert team to investigate Musaveli’s killing.

A brutal assassination underscores the need for whistleblower protection

The targeted assassination of Babita Deokaran — an official in the Gauteng health department — at the end of August points to numerous deficiencies in the protection of whistleblowers, despite the endemic corruption South Africa is wrestling with.

A colleague attending a vigil organised by civil society organisations told Maverick Citizen: “Deokaran had worked with the SIU way before Covid-19 and the resulting shameful PPE looting in the department, suggested that she was exposing people and illegal acts in the Department of Health for at least the past decade.”

While acknowledging the extensive legislative protection for whistleblowers, through the Protected Disclosures Act, Labour Relations Act, Companies Act, Protection against Harassment Act, and the Constitution itself, President Cyril Ramaphosa also pointed out the shortcomings. Commenting on Deokaran’s death, he said: “it is clear that as the fight against corruption gathers momentum, we need to urgently review our current approach not only to witness protection, but also to the broader protection of whistleblowers.”

Khadija Sharife, the former director of the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PLAAF), made a similar point at a United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) meeting earlier in the year: “… each country context is different. The norm is to have a ‘veneer’ of a protective law for whistleblowers. On a deeper level, however, these laws are still not fully implemented and protection is insufficient.”

In comparison to other countries, South Africa’s whistle-blowing policy framework may score favourably, but the reality is that whistleblowers who expose high levels of corruption find themselves in situations where they are: “… strangled financially, socially and economically and often failed by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) when it comes to upholding their rights.”

In an opinion piece, journalist Mandy Wiener points out there is a need for a mind-shift, because: “whistleblowers are not applauded or celebrated, but rather othered and ostracised. They are seen as troublemakers. They are pushed to the fringes of society rather than raised aloft as heroic citizens.”

“The most homophobic document we have ever seen”

Although Ghana is often viewed as ‘the beacon of democracy’ in Anglophone West Africa, recent anti-LGBTQIA+ actions have called this into question.

A private members’ bill being pushed through by eight members of parliament in Ghana essentially criminalises the LGBTQIA+ community and any activities related to them. Titled ‘The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021’, the proposed legislation also seeks to punish people and organisations advocating for the rights of sexual minorities.

Since the bill came to the attention of the public, there has been heated debate inside the country and concerns from around the world are finding their way to Ghana — from protests outside embassies, to direct appeals to the government.

The United Nations, through its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has clearly stated: “The proposed law promotes deeply harmful practices that amount to ill-treatment and are conducive to torture, such as so-called ‘conversion therapy’ and other heinous violations like unnecessary medical procedures on intersex children, and so-called corrective rape for women.”

The Bill came on the heels of welcome news at the beginning of August of the acquittal and release of 21 activists who has been arrested in May on charges of ‘unlawful assembly.’ The individuals had been attending a paralegal training session to discuss how to document rights abuses, organised by Rightify Ghana — a local LGBTQIA advocacy rights organisation. The police accused them of having a meeting promoting homosexuality.

Along with an online campaign with the hashtag #ReleaseThe21 going viral on various media platforms, graphic designers, videographers and musicians joined the calls to release them. After several weeks of detention, the 21 human rights activists were freed after prosecution failed to gather sufficient evidence.

Uganda continues clampdown on rights-focused NGOs

Fifty-four agencies working in the arena of human rights, women’s rights and election monitoring were suspended by the Ugandan government’s Non-Governmental Organization Bureau for failing to register their accounts, using expired permits, or operating without registration.

In a statement, Amnesty International called the suspension arbitrary, “as it goes against Section 33 (2) of the NGO Act, which requires the Bureau to give 30 days’ notice in writing to permit holders to enable them to show cause why the permit should not be revoked.”

The statement also explained: “Many of the organizations affected work in critical areas such as legal practices to help poor or marginalized people. Others work on accountability and transparency in the oil sector, and some monitored human rights in the context of the elections. To shut down organizations working so closely with Ugandans abruptly will hurt people who rely on their services or advocacy.”

Right groups believe this latest move is part of a series of actions taken by the Ugandan government to harass and intimidate CSOs and constrict civic space in the country.

In Brief

Kenyan researcher and author Nanjala Nyabola, joins Global Voices as director of the Advox project. The decorated academic will lead the global network of bloggers and digital rights activists which promotes freedom of expression and access to information online. She has also written two books: ‘Digital Dialogue, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya’, and ‘Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move’.

Influential tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong was detained for three days in her home country of Cameroon, following an order by the country’s attorney general to have her arrested for contempt of court. When she appeared before a court in Douala, her charges were dropped, on the grounds that she had been illegally detained as there was no formal complaint against her. Enonchong’s arrest is believed to be an act of intimidation by the state, in response to her criticism of President Paul Biya’s government.

Raising privacy concerns, Ghanaian lawyer Francis Kwarteng Arthur’s 2020 legal challenge against the National Communications Authority, two telecommunications companies, and the institution in charge of the central subscriber identity module register, was recently rewarded with a victory for privacy rights. Ghana’s High Court ordered a stop to the collection of personal data from mobile phone subscribers and the deletion of information already acquired, after the High Court ruled that the government’s action breached the country’s Data Protection Act.

Togolese journalist Ferdinand Ayité is among the 17 journalists who have lodged a complaint with French prosecutors against the NSO Group. “Ayité is among the nearly 200 journalists on the list of persons identified by the Pegasus Project investigation as potential targets or actual victims of clandestine surveillance by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, reports Reporters Without Borders.”

Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 11, 2021.

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

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