As the world prepares to commemorate World Press Freedom Day in Accra on May 3, there is very little to celebrate in Southern Africa, the very region in which the Windhoek Declaration that gave birth to the day was crafted.

By NHLANHLA NGWENYA

From South Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola to Mozambique, freedom of expression is under severe strain as those who wield power and their agents resort to all manner of tricks to stifle swelling criticism of their failed policies and citizens’ demand for servant leadership and accountable governance.

According to global freedom of expression indices, none of the Southern African countries (excluding the islands) are in the top 30 countries enjoying free media.

This is hardly surprising, as the region has witnessed the retention of colonial legislation; the crafting of new laws to bolster the existing repressive legislative framework as well as the use of brazen extrajudicial means to silence those intent on exposing State excesses.

No other place underlines the dangers of free expression in the region as Mozambique.

On March 27, 2018, Mozambican journalist and independent media commentator, Ericino de Salema, was abducted by unidentified two men in Maputo in broad daylight.

He was later found unconscious outside the city bearing signs of torture and with serious injuries, including multiple fractures. He had received death threats prior to the abduction after he appeared on a privately-owned television station criticising government’s debt restructuring plan.

While the abductors are yet to be identified, the incident has striking resemblance to similar cases involving suspected State agents that have occurred in Mozambique in the past, which raises suspicion that the State is complicit in this latest assault on free expression — by commission or omission.

This is particularly the case given that despite having several such cases being reported, including threats to kill the editor of the weekly Ikweli and Radio Encontro’s director over their reportage of local elections in Nampula, among several other incidents, no decisive action seems to have been taken by authorities to decisively deal with perpetrators of violence.

Besides the violence, the region has also seen authorities simply abuse their position to illegally detain journalists.

On April 2, 2018, DRC police arrested Eliezer Ntambwe, a journalist for the privately-run YouTube channel Tokomi Wapi and held him without charge.

His arrest followed complaints by Kasai Oriental province governor, Ngoyi Kasanji that he had been defamed by the journalist, who also allegedly tried to extort him during an interview.

This is just one case of harassment, threats, beatings and even killings of journalists that are common in the DRC, which has seen the deterioration of the media environment due to the political crisis triggered by President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to illegally extend his term of office.

But while some of the challenges in the region are part of power retention schemes by unpopular leadership trying to cling onto power beyond their constitutional mandate, in other cases, it is simply part of the dictatorial culture.

For instance, with the change of leadership in Zimbabwe — however, controversial that came about — there were hopes that the country would have a clean break with the past that would see “new” leaders substitute repressive media laws for democratic legislation.

This has not happened in almost five months since President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over.

Resultantly, the media continues to operate under the weight of repressive instruments that seek to limit the flow of information, control the practice of journalism and the right to establish media houses, as well as criminalise freedom of expression and artistic expression.

This is despite the fact that the right to exercise all these freedoms are guaranteed in the Constitution.

Coupled with the debilitating legislative framework is the militarisation of the State, which has had a chilling effect on free journalism enterprise, resulting in prevalent self-censorship.

In fact, the military, which is the power behind the civilian arm of government, is on record calling on the media to report “responsibly”, a euphemistic call on journalists to toe the line.

The adage “the more things change the more they stay the same” is also true in Angola and Tanzania.

Despite leadership changes, which appear intent on pursuing a trajectory different to that of former President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, there is no indication that Angola’s new government plans include democratising the media space following the fortification of the repressive Press Law in 2017, some of whose provisions are a mirror of the notorious Zimbabwean media laws.

Tanzania, whose new leader John Magufuli has pursued anti-corruption policies, has also demonstrated hatred of free media and speech.
Several independent commentators and activists, who have criticised his rule through online and traditional media platforms, have been arrested and charged under archaic media and insult laws that criminalise free expression.

Between June and September 2017, three newspapers were either closed or temporarily shut down for “unethical” conduct and allegedly inciting violence by Magufuli’s government.

On November 21, 2017, investigative journalist Azory Gwanda went missing after he was taken by unknown people for an “emergency trip”.

Gwanda wrote several articles after investigating mysterious attacks and killings of police officers and some public officials in a district outside Dar es Salaam.

Even those countries that have been deemed freer and regional torchbearers of democracy such as South Africa have not fared better.

Under former President Jacob Zuma, the South African government became highly sensitive to criticism with the former President trying to undermine the credibility of the media in the course of their investigations into his alleged links to cases of corruption.

Taking a cue from his stance, his loyalists have intimidated and harassed those journalists critical of Zuma’s leadership.

Even opposition leaders, such as the deputy leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Floyd Shivambu, was recently reported to the police for assaulting a journalist outside the South African parliament.

The country’s public broadcaster has, of late, shown signs of political capture, with its management seeking to enforce censorship of issues that reflect badly on the ruling party.

The control and entrenchment of the public media is well-pronounced in Botswana, another perceived poster boy for democracy in the region.

In 2014, the government issued a directive banning its agencies from advertising with the private media, in a bid to cripple the operations and sustainability of independent entities in a country where the government is the biggest market player.

The directive still stands to date.

This has seen the weakening of private media, with the main private newspapers massively retrenching their staff in order to survive.

Independent journalists who have defied the odds and continue to expose government excesses such as Outsa Mokone and others have faced the wrath of the government and have been charged with sedition, a 47-year-old statute under the colonial Penal Code.

Those running the INK centre for investigative journalism have also had to contend with threats, illegal detentions and mysterious break-ins at their premises.

To compliment all this, the country has in its statutes a stringent media regulatory framework in the mould of the Zimbabwean media licensing law and has used its statutory media regulatory bodies to police the media.

Cognisant of the potential of the internet in energising citizen agency and circumventing legislative firewalls that hinder free expression, regional governments are swiftly moving towards limiting freedom of expression online through undemocratic legislation; throttling the internet; and complete internet shutdowns.

Tanzania and Malawi have passed laws criminalising expression online, while Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe are all mooting legislation that will erode free speech on the internet under the guise of fighting cybercrime.

This is despite the fact that all the countries already have a raft of laws that they can use to deal with violations they are purportedly trying to arrest under the proposed cybercrime bills.

While combating cybercrime is in-line with the International Telecommunications Union protocols and agreed international practice, regional governments’ (proposed) laws are overreaching and go beyond what constitutes cybercrime to include what is centrally freedom of speech.

But while other regional countries are seeking to give their online repression some veneer of legality, DRC authorities are notorious for simply shutting down the internet when faced with citizen protests and during elections.

Zimbabwe has also test-run this measure during the 2016 protests and there is no guarantee that it may not use it again given the ruling elite’s demonstrated paranoia of the internet, particularly social media.

In light of the foregoing, it is critical that the media and regional citizens do not treat May 3 commemorations as yet another annual ritual, but take stock of the loses with a view to fighting back and rescuing their right to freedom of expression guaranteed in all regional countries’ constitutions.

The demand for free expression is a just struggle not only anchored on what is constitutionally due to them, but also predicated on the centrality of this fundamental freedom to human dignity.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya is a freedom of expression activist and media consultant. This article originally appeared on medium/@the.accent an initiative of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe and The Accent.