As the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to sweep across the continent, governments are stepping up emergency measures to slow the spread of the virus. Enforcement of the measures, in societies where impunity for violations is commonplace, is proving to be a big problem.
In the shadow of the battle against the public health crisis, another crisis is emerging. Journalists, media workers, and bloggers are being targeted for their critical work and expressions in many countries in Africa. Media houses are also being targeted – operating licenses are on the line and editorial independence is at greater risk.
Governments are demanding free airtime for government messages while failing to protect critical reporting that promotes transparency and accountability in COVID-19 government responses.
Since 2015, Uganda’s rankings in the state of press freedom as been on a steady fall. That on itself is concerning.
The latest is that in a space of five weeks running into April 2020, at least twelve journalists and media workers have been targeted for covering COVID-19 related stories. The lockdown has also facilitated arrests of journalists over frivolous grounds.
The reprisal attacks have taken the form of arbitrary arrests, assaults, confiscation of media equipment, and orders to delete pictures, harassment, intimidation, tone policing, among others. The leading perpetrators are police and Local Defence Unit (LDU) officers, Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), and other local leaders on district COVID-19 task forces. The motivation has largely been to block reporting on critical accountability issues and interest to gag the media.
On April 21 in the eastern region district of Kamuli, Tom Gwebayanga, the district bureau chief for the government-owned Vision Group was arrested and charged with spreading harmful propaganda for writing a news article on mismanagement of Ushs. 80m (USD 21,100) donation. The money was meant to purchase relief food for the vulnerable poor in Kamuli town during the lockdown. In a phone call, Tom narrated to me how he was given a tongue lashing by over twenty district officials on the COVID-19 task force. He says that while under duress, he apologized for writing the story. While under detention, the District Health Officer (DHO) Dr. Aggrey Batezaki attacked and punched him severally. He has since opened up a case of assault at police against the DHO.
Under the cover of darkness, police arbitrarily arrested NBS TV’s Samson Kasumba. They took away his phones to block him from informing his next of kin and his lawyer Nicholas Opiyo of his arrest. He was held incommunicado for a night and interrogated on sedition and spreading harmful propaganda allegations. He continues to report on bond under a General Enquiries File (GEF), charges remain unknown.
In the West Nile district of Arua, the Deputy RDC harassed Radio Paci’s journalist Alfred Nyakuni for reporting about Doris Oku’dinia, the Ediofe Health Center III enrolled nurse who wheeled a patient for over 3 km to Arua regional referral hospital for treatment after failing to access an ambulance.
On March 19, Julius Ocungi, Kitgum bureau chief of the Uganda Radio Network news agency was attacked by police officers while taking photos of officers who were closing down a local bar in line with the COVID-19 government directives. He suffered injuries on his right leg and one of his eyes.
The security personnel further ordered Ocungi to delete his photos. He protested. “I asked them to give me a good reason to delete the photos. Did they do something nasty that they did not want to appear in the press? They are police officers, public officers. What are they trying to hide?” he told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In Kenya, journalists have been harassed, threatened, physically attacked, and arrested for critically reporting on COVID-19 related responses.
On March 29, police arrested three journalists – Citizen TV’s John Wanyama and Charles Kerecha and an independent journalist Mukoya Aywah – for allegedly violating dawn-to-dusk curfew despite journalists being exempted from the curfew restrictions. NTV Kenya’s Peter Wainana was allegedly assaulted by police in Mombasa for reporting on how police used excessive force against people who were struggling to board a ferry.
In recent years, Tanzania has seen a proliferation of repressive laws aimed at silencing and punishing journalists and bloggers. During this COVID-19 period, the clampdown is on. Amnesty International and other human rights groups are calling for respect of the right to freedom of expression and press freedom.
On April 20, Tanzanian authorities suspended Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist working with Tanzania Daima daily newspaper for six months for allegedly reporting about a COVID-19 patient without the patient’s consent.
In the same month, the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) suspended online content delivery by the Mwananchi daily newspaper for posting a photograph of President John Pombe Magufuli out shopping surrounded by a group of people in apparent breach of the global social distancing guidelines. The paper took down the social media post and issued an apology after the government said that the photo had been taken before the coronavirus crisis but that was not enough to stop the government from suspending its license.
The president is under the spotlight for apparently mismanaging the country’s response to the pandemic.
Three other media organizations have also been fined about USD 2,200 and ordered to apologize for the “transmission of false and misleading information” on the country’s response to slowing the spread of the virus.
In Zimbabwe, at least eight journalists have faced harassment and targeted attacked for reporting on the enforcement of the lockdown or other reporting in the context of covering COVID-19.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe has documented incidents of harassment and arrest of journalists for operating without valid journalism accreditation yet Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is yet to issue 2020 accreditation cards. Media workers, including newspaper vendors, have also been targeted in the attacks. On April 20, MISA secured a court order directing police and other law enforcement agencies to interfere “in any unnecessary way” with the work of journalists during enforcement of the emergency measures.
In an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI), a freelance journalist recounted how he was stopped by police in Harare and “forced to lie down and beaten by officers who released him 15 minutes later.”
On April 9, authorities in Zambia shut down independent television news channel, Prime TV. The Zambia Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had earlier canceled the station’s broadcasting license for allegedly refusing to air the government’s COVID-19 public awareness campaigns. Prime TV was demanding money for airing previous state advertisements. In a statement, the IBA noted that the license was canceled “in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare, or good order.” IBA failed to provide a specific reason that can justify the cancellation of the license.
In South Africa, police fired rubber bullets at Azarrah Karim, a journalist working for News24 while they dispersed a group of people who were moving on the streets of Johannesburg. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has filed a formal complaint to the police over the incident. “We have already seen three videos that show police shoot first and ask questions later,” Hopewell Radebe, Convener of SANEF in Gauteng.