CPJ calls on SADC to prioritise press freedom and the safety of journalists

 

 

Dear Dr Stergomena Tax,

I write to you from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit organisation that advocates for press freedom worldwide, ahead of the 39th Ordinary Summit to urge you to prioritise press freedom and the safety of journalists within the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The SADC treaty commits member states to the principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In addition, the SADC Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport provides that member states should “take necessary measures to ensure the development of media that are editorially independent.” Despite these commitments, CPJ has documented a deeply troubling erosion of press freedom in several member states, including attacks on individual journalists, media suspensions, internet shutdowns, and restrictive legislation.

Many of these threats intensify ahead of and during elections. More than half of the SADC member states are expected to hold local and national elections by the end of 2020. SADC’s principles and guidelines for democratic elections require governments to “foster transparency, freedom of the media” and “access to information by all citizens.” Therefore, member states must ensure a free press so that journalists can work freely and safely, and citizens can access reliable information and make informed decisions.

Here is a summary of our priority issues within the region:


Attacks on journalists

We are particularly concerned with Tanzania, whose president, John Magufuli, is the incoming chair of the SADC, and where journalists operate in a very hostile environment. Freelance journalist Azory Gwanda has been missing since 2017, and the government’s failure to provide accountability in his case has had a chilling effect on the local media. Just last month, Erick Kabendera was arrested and charged with economic crimes in retaliation for his critical journalism. He remains behind bars.

However, attacks on journalists in the region extend beyond Tanzania:

  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), journalists have endured assaults and arrests, especially while covering protests and elections or reporting on powerful individuals.
  • In Zambia, journalist Derrick Sinjela is serving 18 months in prison for contempt of court in connection with his reporting on the country’s Supreme Court.
  • In Mozambique, journalist Amade Abubacar remains in legal limbo after his arrest in January; he spent 108 days in pre-trial detention in connection with his reporting on the insurgency in Cabo Delgado before he was provisionally released, and has yet to hear whether he will be formally indicted despite his pre-trial investigation concluding in July.
  • In Lesotho, a military spokesperson in late 2018 threatened an investigative journalist for articles she wrote on demands for compensation by soldiers.
  • During the South African elections in May, journalists faced online harassment and cyber-bullying.
  • In the run-up to the Comorian elections in March, and in the crisis that followed, journalists were arrested and newspapers were censored.

Media suspensions and shutdowns

In Tanzania and Zambia, authorities have used media suspensions to pull critical media outlets from the newsstands and the airwaves. During elections in late December 2018, authorities in the DRC blocked the signals of at least two broadcasters. Partial and complete internet shutdowns in the DRC and in Zimbabwe have strangled the flow of information during politically tense periods.

Restrictive legislation

Criminal defamation, sedition, and secrecy laws — many of them vestiges of the colonial and apartheid eras — have been used to target critical journalists and media outlets in Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and the DRC. Zimbabwe and Lesotho have recently struck down criminal defamation laws and we urge member states to follow this example. Through new regulations, Tanzania has also set impossibly high barriers for bloggers to operate while seeking greater control of what citizens can say online.

These are difficult but not intractable challenges. In fact, SADC member states have been catalysts for the development of press freedom in Africa, and around the world. Consider that May 3, the date of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek — in which African journalists affirmed that the “free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development” — later became the day on which the global media community commemorates World Press Freedom Day.

Press freedom is essential to ensuring sustainable development, peace, and the enjoyment of human rights, and the SADC can and should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting press freedom in Africa and the world. But in order to do so, it must hold its member states to account on press freedom violations. The 39th Ordinary Summit of heads of state and government is a prime opportunity for SADC members to raise the issues CPJ has documented with relevant states. We urge SADC member states at the summit to recommit to press freedom, and call for the release of all imprisoned journalists and the protection of free and independent media in the region.

CPJ would welcome an opportunity to discuss this further with the SADC secretariat, as well as representatives of member states.

Sincerely,

Robert Mahoney
Deputy Executive Director
Committee to Protect Journalists

CC:

Angola, President João Lourenço
Botswana, President Mokgweetsi Masisi
Comoros, President Azali Assoumani
Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi
Eswatini, Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini
Lesotho, Prime Minister Tom Thabane
Madagascar, President Andry Rajoelina
Malawi, President Peter Mutharika
Mauritius, Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth
Mozambique, President Filipe Nyusi
Namibia, President Hage Geingob
Seychelles, President Danny Faure
South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa
Tanzania, President John Magufuli
Zambia, President Edgar Lungu
Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Robert Mahoney
Guest Author

Related stories

‘Climate of fear’ in eSwatini media

Self-censorship is rife as journalists are fined for stories that criticise royals or big business

The Africa investment protocol: a prickly pear for Africans

The Africa Continental Free Trade Area is set to be launched in January 2021. But the secretariat still needs to ensure that investors are adequately protected

The wicked challenge of rethinking internationalisation in Southern Africa

The ability to innovate, and adaptability and flexibility will determine whether universities can advance internationalisation in the post-Covid-19 world

‘Killing the chicken to scare the monkey’: what Jimmy Lai’s arrest means for Hong Kong’s independent media

Although self-censorship has long been a concern, Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed a vibrant free press

The media is dead, long live the king

The state of King Mswati’s health is just one of many contentious issues that cannot be reported on in eSwatini

After a 55-year struggle, a major victory for press freedom in Sierra Leone

A law used to harass and intimidate journalists has been repealed
Advertising

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

Covid-19 stems ‘white’ gold rush

The pandemic hit abalone farmers fast and hard. Prices have dropped and backers appear to be losing their appetite for investing in the delicacy

Al-Shabab’s terror in Mozambique

Amid reports of brutal, indiscriminate slaughter, civilians bear the brunt as villages are abandoned and the number of refugees nears half a million

South Africa’s cities opt for clean energy

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions will hinge on the transport sector

How designing ‘green’ buildings can help to combat the climate...

South Africa’s buildings account for 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the City of Johannesburg’s new draft green buildings policy aims to change that
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…