African governments and leaders have found a new excuse for censoring journalists and media organisations — abetting terrorism.
They are increasingly using anti-terror laws to restrict citizens’ access to information, limit reporting of legitimate events and undermine freedom of expression.
In some cases they have deliberately manufactured a “threat” of terrorism to deflect from their own corruption, mismanagement and incompetence.
Criticising leaders and governments, questioning human rights violations by the state and reporting critically on state violence against citizens are portrayed as encouraging or participating in terrorism.
Legitimate opposition parties, civil society organisations and activists are labelled “terror” groups to silence them, restrict their activities, close them down and cut their funding.
African anti-terror laws give governments’ extrajudicial powers to imprison people without bail, waive the human rights of suspected perpetrators and freeze or confiscate funds.
Eswatini’s King Mswati III declared the opposition People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) a “terrorist” organisation in 2008 and detained its leaders. Mswati, who also unilaterally changed the name of the country from Swaziland to Eswatini, banned Pudemo from participating in last year’s elections.
In November, Eswatini’s organised crime unit detained journalist Musa Ndlangamandla after accusing him of encouraging “terrorism” by reporting on opposition organisations designated as “terrorist” by the king.
Ethiopian authorities arrested journalist Mesganaw Getachew on August 9 this year after he interviewed lawyer Henok Aklilu outside a court in the capital, Addis Ababa, following a hearing in which two other journalists were facing charges of terrorism.
Getachew was accused by the authorities of contravening anti-terrorism laws for seeking information on the cases.
The Egyptian government has designated more than 100 journalists, bloggers and citizens as “terrorists”. Three Al Jazeera journalists — Salem Almahroukey, Ayman Azzam and Mohamed Maher Akl — are on the national terror list.
Al Jazeera said this was “direct attack on press freedom and freedom of expression”, and that the three journalists “are known for their dedication and professionalism”.
The authorities banned Al Jazeera’s website in 2017 claiming the media outlet supports terrorism. Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been in jail since December 2016 without any formal charges lodged against him. He was arrested for alleged “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos”.
Many African governments and leaders demand that journalists report only favourably on their government anti-terror initiatives.
Journalist Timothy Kalyegira was accused of terror activities for presenting a “different” narrative to the government’s official view of who was responsible for a series bombings in Uganda in 2010.
Criticising Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is also deemed “subversive” and over the past few years a number of journalists have been investigated under anti-terrorism laws and arrested.
The Nigerian government has regularly used anti-sabotage, terrorism prevention and cybercrime laws to arrest journalists, bloggers and social media influencers critical of the government.
On August 3, journalist Omoyele Sowore, the founder of online news agency Sahara Reporters, was arrested by the Nigerian authorities after calling for a peaceful protest on August 5 to show opposition to government corruption. #RevolutionNow also demanded that poverty and joblessness be tackled more seriously by the government.
Journalist Jones Abiri was detained in May and charged under Nigeria’s anti-terrorism laws. The government alleges that Abiri, the publisher and editor of the Weekly Source, a daily newspaper based in the oil-rich Bayelsa state of the Niger Delta region, encouraged terrorism.
He was arrested in August 2016 at his office in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa state, after the newspaper published a story saying that rogue military officers in collision with corrupt regional politicians and local militants were planning to bomb crude oil installations to deliberately cause instability.
Nigerian authorities accused Abiri of being the leader of a militant separatist group which was allegedly responsible for bombing oil pipelines in the Niger Delta region. He was in detention for more than two years.
Abiri successfully petitioned the federal high court in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, who judged his detention “baseless”. But, on March 2019 he was rearrested under the same charges and released a month later.
Cameroon has been embroiled in a succession conflict since 2017 where separatists groups in the marginalised two English-speaking regions in the west of the country want to break away from the French-speaking government.
On August 2, the Cameroon authorities arrested news anchor Samuel Wazizi, in Buea, the capital of the country’s English-speaking Southwest region. Wazizi, a popular journalist known as “Halla Ya Matta”, works for the independent television station, Chillen Muzik and Television. Following his coverage of the armed conflict he was arrested for allegedly promoting terrorism by “collaborating with separatists”.
African media organisations, civil society groups and opposition parties must remain vigilant to expose autocratic leaders’ use of anti-terror laws to undermine freedom of expression, freedom of association and access to information to sideline critics and hide corruption and incompetence.
William Gumede is executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg). This is an edited extract of his recent address on democracy and extremism in Africa at Aarhus University’s Danish School of Journalism in Denmark.