Significant court rulings, Jalingo’s journey from jail to joy, and Uganda’s quashing of critical voices
March 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.
March saw the courts take centre stage with the passing of landmark rulings on media and digital rights and a surprising judgement in an LGBTQI+ assault case in conservative Cameroon, while Uganda continues tightening screws on critical voices:
It was a month of celebration for African organisations involved in strategic litigation — which actually kicked off on 17 February with a Supreme Court ruling that declared the forced closure of The Post newspaper [in 2016] by Zambia’s Revenue Authority (ZRA) to be illegal. We’ll celebrate that win in this month’s brief, along with some March legal victories.
Citing alleged tax non-compliance, the ZRA had ordered the closure of the privately-owned newspaper just two months before the 2016 elections, even though it had been part of the Zambian media landscape for over three decades. At the time, Amnesty International described the act as: “a deliberate ploy to silence the media ahead of the election” and a “disturbing development clearly designed to silence critical media voices.”
As reported by the International Press Institute (IPI), the judges acknowledged the passage of time since the closure of The Post, but pointed out: “we do not believe […] that such passage of the time has sanitized the wrongful manner in which the liquidation was conducted.” The ruling also instructed that a fresh reliquidation process be “restarted under a new judge to ensure compliance with the relevant legal provisions.”
As Joan Chirwa, the former managing editor of the publication, pointed out: “[W]hile this ruling won’t resurrect The Post, . . it is important because it shows that the judiciary has the independence to ‘make decisions that espouse the rule of law.’”
Just a month later, in another win for freedom of expression and access to information, a local organisation working on protecting the rule of law through strategic litigation — Chapter One Foundation (CoF) — and regulatory body the Zambia Information and Communication Authority (ZICTA), entered into a consent judgement.
ZICTA agreed “not to act outside its legal authority to interrupt access to the internet in future” and also agreed “to inform the public of the reason for any interruption in access to the internet within thirty-six hours of any such event.”
This was after CoF filed a judicial review proceeding against ZICTA, challenging the internet shutdown during the 12 August 2021 general elections. In their submission, CoF stated that ZICTA’s decision to shut down the internet and disrupt access to media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, “threw citizens into a panic, allowing the spread of disinformation and preventing citizens from accessing vital services.”
Legal ordeal ends for Agba Jalingo
On 21 March, almost three years after he was first arrested, detained, and tortured, Nigerian journalist Agba Jalingo was able to walk out of court a free man, declaring: “at every point, I knew I was innocent.” He made his jubilant declaration soon after the court dismissed all charges against him of treason and defamation.
Jalingo was initially arrested on 22 August 2019 for an article he published on his Cross River Watch website accusing the governor of the area, Ben Ayade, of allegedly misappropriating N500 million (US$1.2 million) that had been earmarked for a bank. Jalingo was initially charged with treason, terrorism, and publishing false information, but the charges were amended in October 2019, according to PEN International.
Amnesty International had listed Jalingo as a prisoner of conscience, and in 2019, the One Free Press Coalition ranked Jalingo’s detention as one of the Top 10 most urgent threats to press freedom globally, during their marking of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.
His acquittal follows an equally welcome judgement in his case by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice (CCJ) last year. In July 2021, the CCJ ordered the Nigerian Federal government to pay Jalingo N30 million (USD72,922) in compensation, over his illegal detention and treatment — when he was arrested and chained to a deep freezer for about 34 days without being charged.
Instituted by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), the suit made the case that:
“[T]he alleged harassments, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, unfair prosecution and imprisonment of Jalingo and other journalists exercising their rights to freedom of expression and information and media freedom, violated all the international and regional treaties on human rights to which Nigeria is a State Party.”
Crowning these legal wins was the ECOWAS CCJ ruling on 25 March ordering the Nigerian government to either repeal or amend Section 24 of the Cybercrime (Prohibition and Prevention) Act 2015 which, in its current form, violates Nigerians’ right to freedom of expression.
The judgement went on to state that Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act, should be consistent with provisions of Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In his analysis, journalist Olatunji Olaigbe points out that even though section 24 of the Act claims to “criminalise the use of the internet to spread pornographic content, false or aggravating information, and cyberbullying,” it has primarily been, “selectively applied to punish journalists and political dissidents.”
While the judgement is binding on Nigeria as a member State, some suspect the government may ignore it.
Diplomacy pays dividends
A meeting between high level officials and members of the regional governing council of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) was an opportunity to applaud the Botswana government’s amendments to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence (Controlled Investigations) Bill.
At the meeting, Minister of Defence, Justice, and Security Thomas Kagiso Mmusi explained that the Bill had initially been fast-tracked through parliament to ensure compliance with the internationally constituted Financial Action Task Force recommendations. Minister Mmusi also told MISA “they had listened to concerns from civil society organisations and conceded on the need for more judicial oversight when officials are intercepting communications.”
The amendments include provisions that:
- Prohibit investigators from intercepting communications without a warrant, where previously the Bill provided for authorities to conduct warrantless interception of a person’s communications for up to 14 days;
- Create a committee, to be headed by a judge, which will give oversight on interception operations and undercover investigations and receive complaints about any misuse of such powers;
- Require the committee to report annually on its work, which the Minister of Defence, Justice and Security must table in Botswana’s National Assembly.
During an earlier visit in February initiated and led by the Botswana Editors Forum, MISA-Regional, MISA Botswana, the Press Council of Botswana, the Southern African Editors’ Forum (SAEF), the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE) and the WAN-IFRA Media Freedom Committee, groups pointed out that the Bill “threatened the work of journalists and the country’s media freedom and free expression.”
Continued persecution of critical voices in Uganda
Section 25 of Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act, 2011 once again came into play, leading to the arrest of eight journalists and novelist Norman Tumuhimbise — whose books are critical of President Museveni and his family. Tumhumbise was poised to launch his new book “Liars and Accomplices” at the end of March, in Kampala.
On 10 March, a joint team comprised of Uganda Police Force and Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) soldiers stormed Alternative DIGITALK TV — an online television station — and arrested nine staff members: executive director Tumuhimbise, Arnold Mukose, Faridah Bikobere, Jeremiah Mukiibi, Kato Tumusiime, Roger Tulyahabwe, Teangle Nabukeera, Lillian Luwedde, and media intern Jacob Wabyona.
Faced with denials from both the police and army, IFEX member the Human Rights Network for Journalists — Uganda petitioned Kampala’s High Court, compelling the Attorney General and other associated institutions to produce the nine, who were being held incommunicado. Between 15 and 16 March, seven were released. The remaining two, Tumuhimbise and Bikobere, were slapped with cyberstalking and the infamous ‘offensive communication’ charges.
On the same day soldiers and police went to Alternative DIGITALK TV, 12 men dressed in plain clothes but suspected to be security personnel raided Vision Group offices in Kampala, looking for journalist Lawrence Kitatta. In a conversation with the HRNJ-Uganda team, Kitatta said he was “in fear for his life since he does not know the motive of the said security personnel.”
Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act has also been used to persecute novelist and lawyer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and radical activist Stella Nyanzi. Rukirabashaija was arrested, held incommunicado, tortured, and eventually charged with offensive communications. He has since fled Uganda and found his way to Germany. At the beginning of the year, Nyanzi also moved to Germany, with her family. She is the current recipient of the “Writer-in-Exile” grant of the German PEN Center, which advocates on behalf of persecuted authors.
As Rukirabashaija told Deutsche Welle: “I’m being persecuted for being a thinker. Uganda hates thinkers, so I’m being punished.”
Gender in the courts…
In a surprising but welcome move, a Cameroonian court sentenced one of the assailants involved in a 21 November attack of an intersex person to six months in prison and fined him USD1,106. Legislation that punishes same sex relations is further exacerbated by Cameroon’s mostly homophobic and transphobic environment, one in which authorities prefer to overlook their duty in protecting LGBTQI+ people from violence. The brutal assault on Sara (a pseudonym) by multiple perpetrators had lasted several hours. Only one man was arrested in connection with the attack, despite the fact that two videos of the attack were circulated. A fresh investigation was only taken up after a complaint was lodged by CAMFAIDS — a human rights organization advocating for LGBTQI+ people — on behalf of Sara.
As Sara’s lawyer, Michel Togue, observed: “It [the conviction] sends a strong message that violence against people because of their sexual orientation is wrong and leads to consequences for the perpetrators.”
… and on the Agenda
This year’s marking of International Women’s Day by IFEX members in Africa drew attention to a range of issues from climate justice and restrictive legislation to how to tackle online violence.
The Media foundation for West Africa (MFWA) highlighted the obstacles that impede women in Ghana from fully enjoying their digital rights, and shared how these gender gaps could be narrowed, while the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) convened a discussion focusing on online violence against women.
Protests, which started at the gates of the National Assembly Complex in Abuja and then spread, pushed the House of Representatives to reconsider and eventually vote in favour of a motion by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila to reverse the rejection of the bills. The bills will be reassessed during the next phase of voting on another set of Constitution amendment bills, in a few weeks.
Among the bills rejected by the National Assembly on 1 March were those seeking to assign 35 percent of legislative seats to women in the National and State Houses of Assembly, as well as to reserve 35 percent of leadership positions for women in political parties and guarantee immediate citizenship to foreign-born husbands of a Nigerian woman. The Constitution already grants automatic citizenship to foreign-born wives of Nigerian male citizens.
The MFWA has petitioned Ghana’s minister of defense Dominic Nitiwul to order an investigation into the brutal assault and torture of investigative journalist Michael Aidoo by two soldiers on 10 March.
On 9 March, Cameroonian journalist Paul Chouta was abducted by unknown assailants, driven to the outskirts of town and brutally beaten. In February 2019, Chouta had been attacked outside his home, and four months later was arrested on what are believed to politically motivated charges. He was jailed for nearly two years until a court in May 2021 found him guilty and sentenced him to time-served.
In mid-March, Mali’s military junta suspended Radio France Internationale (RFI) and France 24, after the latter aired a report alleging that Mali’s military were responsible for killing dozens of civilians. According to Public Media Alliance, the report included interviews with Human Rights Watch (HRW) and United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.
Ethiopian freelance journalists Amir Aman Kiyaro and Thomas Engida were released after four months in detention without being charged. “Three other journalists — Temerat Negara, cofounder of the online outlet Terara Network, Oromia News Network editor Dessu Dulla, and ONN reporter Bikila Amenu — remain behind bars in the Oromia regional state,” reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.