Radical rudeness proponent released, Jalingo case taken to ECOWAS community court, and Kabendera pays to be free
February in Sub-Saharan Africa: A round up of key free expression news by Regional Editor Reyhana Masters, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera enjoying his freedom, the overturning of Stella Nyanzi’s conviction, and the nullification of the disputed Malawian elections of 2019 were bright spots in an otherwise grim month on the continent.
Disinformation as dangerous as COVID-19
With the first COVID-19 case recorded in Nigeria, the government of the continent’s most populous nation will have to spend as much time dealing with the spread of polluted information as it does in containing the spread of the epidemic.
Unverified messages about everything from false virus outbreaks to outlandish remedies like garlic or bathing in salt water are being passed across countries and borders in rapid real time, resulting in rampant speculation. Of course, there are also those who see the humourous side:
Apart from the inaccurate and sometimes deliberately misleading online and offline information, conversations about COVID-19 on the African continent have primarily focused on issues such as whether flights to and from China should continue unrestricted, how prepared African countries are for the epidemic, and whether our governments provide useful and truthful information. There is also some concern that the strong economic and political ties that many African countries share with China may influence governments to minimize the risks of COVID-19 to avoid undermining that relationship. Both Kenya and Zimbabwe sent messages of solidarity to China.
In general, African governments are pro-actively providing information through official channels as a remedy to the misleading information making the rounds on social media platforms. Nations seem to be transparent about the crisis, sharing health data with other countries, their publics and providing constant updates on suspected cases. Recently, health ministers from across Africa met in Ethiopia to work on a concerted regional effort to effectively address the threat posed by the virus.
Punitive fines for Erick Kabendera
On 24 February, a gruelling seven months of prolonged incarceration and recurring postponements of his court case came to an end for Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera.
However, his freedom came at a punitive price. After entering into a plea bargain agreement with the prosecution, Kabendera agreed to pay a fine of US$75,000 within six months for two counts of failure to pay tax. This was on top of a further fine of US$43,000 for alleged money laundering.
Kabendera’s brave stand in always speaking truth to power came at great personal cost. While in jail, Kabendera struggled with his health with authorities refusing to let him access medical care for the first few weeks of his detention. In November 2019, his mother pleaded with President John Magufuli to release him. She passed away a month later, on New Year’s Eve. Authorities refused to allow him to attend her funeral.
Dr. Nyanzi conviction overturned
While waiting for proceedings to begin, the packed courtroom was entertained by Dr. Nyanzi who blew kisses in the air, then pulled out the new book of poems she completed while in prison and recited one of them. She beamed as she listened to High Court judge Henry Peter Adonyo state: “The lower court didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case. The appellant should be released immediately.” Her supporters inside the courtroom broke out in cheers.
Outside, her well-wishers, friends and family crowned her with a tiara as they all chanted “queen.” While taking a moment to appreciate the support, Nyanzi went straight into combat mode and questioned why she had been arrested and convicted in the first place.
Arbitrary detention of Agba Jalingo comes to an end
Almost six months after being arrested, Nigerian journalist Agba Jalingo was finally granted bail on 13 February and released 4 days later, once a 10 million naira (US$27,510) bond was posted.
From the outset, the handling of Jalingo’s case was reflective of the decline in media freedom and the growing repression and abuse of power in Nigeria. On 20 November, Amnesty International declared Jalingo along with human rights defenders Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare to be prisoners of conscience, for “facing ongoing arbitrary detention and unfair trials solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
When Jalingo was arrested on 22 August 2019, he was initially investigated for conspiracy to cause unrest and conduct likely to cause breach of peace, but these allegations were then escalated to include charges of terrorism and treason.
Nigerian advocacy organisation the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) is taking his case up with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice (CCJ) citing the “prolonged, arbitrary detention; unfair prosecution; persecution and sham trial of journalist, Agba Jalingo.” In their suit, SERAP argued that the sole objective of Nigerian authorities was to silence Jalingo for expressing critical views and carrying out his job as a journalist.
Questions around Kizito Mihigo’s death
When the story of Rwandan gospel musician Kizito Mihigo’s death first rippled through the African continent, there was much scepticism around the police line that he had intended to join rebel groups in Burundi.
As a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the popular musician sang about peace, love, unity and forgiveness in his lyrics. In 2014 he released the song Igisobanuro Cy’urupfu which questioned the government’s exclusion of revenge attacks from its narrative of the genocide.
The Rwandan Investigation Bureau has ruled the singer’s death a suicide, according to a statement put out by the National Public Prosecution Authority (NPPA) on 26 February. International agencies Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative had called for an independent probe, but the Rwanda Investigation Board rebuffed the call saying it is a sovereign nation, capable of conducting its own internal investigation.
Constitutional Court orders fresh presidential election for Malawi
In a landmark ruling and a unanimous decision by the five presiding judges, Malawi’s Constitutional Court nullified the presidential elections held in May 2019. The judges ruled “that the irregularities and anomalies have been so widespread, systematic and grave, such that the integrity of the results has been seriously compromised”. The gross irregularities included use of duplicate forms, lack of signatures on some result sheets and the alteration of figures on many of the voting papers with Tipp-Ex correcting fluid.
The court decision, which was handed down on 3 February 2020, called for fresh elections within 150 days and also reinstated former Vice President Saulos Chilima.
President Mutharika and the Malawi Electoral Commission appealed to the same court to have the ruling set aside on the basis that it is unaffordable. The court threw out the petition saying democracy comes at a high price.
The revelation of the numerous gross irregularities during Malawi’s election has called into question deficiencies in the work of election observer missions. Thabo Mbeki, head of the Commonwealth Observer group said the election was conducted with professionalism and dedication, while the SADC preliminary report stated Malawi had “ conducted itself professionally through its improved administrative procedures.”
Guinea’s elections rescheduled… again
Guinea’s electoral landscape in the run up to the now rescheduled 1 March 2020 constitutional referendum and legislative elections has been stained by the deaths of protestors, all of whom have been killed by security forces during sustained demonstrations. Guinea has been placed on a list of five countries on the Civicus Monitor Watchlist, because of the undermining of human rights and shrinking of civic space in the current electoral cycle.
Although the numbers are being disputed, by the end of February, more than 20 protestors had reportedly been shot and killed, hundreds injured and numerous others arrested. Concerned by the rising number of deaths, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is asking authorities to review “the operational directives of the security agents who are assigned to maintain order at such protests” and in particular the use of live ammunition.
The scarlet protests — so named after the colour of the National Defense of the Constitution (FNDC) movement — started on 14 October 2019. Demonstrators are opposed to attempts by 81-year-old President Alpha Condé to serve a further two terms at the helm of the country.
Three weeks before he died, Liberian journalist and popular talk show host Zenu Miller published a Facebook post complaining about the pain he was in, following an assault during a football match by President George Weah’s elite security, the Executive Protective Forces. A medical report from the ELWA hospital in Monrovia stated that Miller died of “severe stroke and hypertension”. The finding was publicly accepted by the family.
While on his way home, broadcast journalist Abdiwali Ali Hassan was shot and killed in Afgoye, Somalia, 30 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu, according to the Somalian group Human Rights Journalists. His colleague told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that Abdiwali had been receiving threats for the last few months for his reporting. His death comes on the back of an Amnesty International report, We live in perpetual fear, which documents the dangerous and repressive conditions that Somali journalists work under.
Kenya’s former and longest serving president Daniel Arap Moi passed away on 4 February 2020. Some sections of Kenyan society remembered him with appreciation and others with loathing. In his tribute to Moi, veteran journalist Joseph Warungu focused on how his autocratic and tyrannical rule gave birth to Kenyan satire.
The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) is requesting the Burundi government to reconsider the heavy sentence imposed on Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi — four journalists from the country’s only independent media outlet Iwacu. Although they had informed authorities of their plan to travel to the Bubanza province to report on the outbreak in fighting between Burundian security forces and the rebel group RED-Tabaram, the #IWACU4 were arrested on 22 October 2019, along with their driver Adolphe Masabarakiza.
Ethiopia’s parliament passed the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation, a law punishing “hate speech” and “disinformation” with hefty fines and long jail terms. The law was passed despite objections by rights groups who warned it undermines free speech months before a major election.
Election day in Togo on 22 February was calm and as MFWA reports: “contrary to fears of violence, especially in the event of protests against the eventual results, the polls and their aftermath have been largely peaceful.” But that goodwill was shattered just as the polls closed and the counting began. “Telephone communications and access to the internet and social networks were disrupted, to subdue a demonstration to demand changes to Togo’s electoral laws.” In gearing up for the elections, Togo’s parliament last year approved a constitutional change allowing long-standing President Faure Gnassingbe to potentially stay in office until 2030, despite widespread protests calling for an end to his family’s decades-long grip on power.
On 30 January, eSwatini’s (Swaziland) National Commissioner of Police, William Dlamini, put out a statement making it clear to citizens that the police would hunt down and arrest people who criticise King Mswati on social media.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on March 3, 2020.