Opinion

William Gumede: Covid-19 is giving African governments cover to crack down on media

Many African governments are stifling freedom of expression under the guise of tackling Covid-19, restricting access to information and undermining the basic human rights of ordinary citizens. They must be kept in check, says William Gumede.

Many African governments under the guise of tackling Covid-19 are stifling freedom of expression, restricting access to information and undermining the basic human rights of ordinary citizens.

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The majority of African countries have struggled to tackle Covid-19 because of poor health infrastructure, lack of medical equipment and expertise, and shortage of money.  

Most African governments appear to have adopted a strategy of keeping information about the extent of the spread of Covid-19, and the success or not of the efforts to combat the virus, out of the public eye.

Many African governments have been clamping down on the media, marginalising civil society and keeping a veil of silence on the spread, capacity of, and resources available to combat the virus.

The Madagascar government has banned all radio phone-in programmes to restrict listeners criticising the government’s handling of Covid-19.

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Many countries have restricted the operational freedom of journalists. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) police deliberately ran down television journalist Tholi Totali Glody in Likasi, in the country’s Haut-Katanga province of Glody, who works for Alfajari TV, a local station, and who was reporting on compliance to the lockdown decreed by the provincial government.

In Chad, Aly Mahamat Bello, a journalist for the state broadcaster Télé Tchad, his cameraman, Abakar Mahamad Seid and their driver, were assaulted and then detained by the Chad Police Mobile Intervention Unit (GMIP) in the capital, N’Djamena, while reporting on government Covid-19 enforcement measures.

In many cases, governments have restricted Covid-19 reporting to only media organisations and journalists who are perceived to be loyal to them.

Media, civil society and opposition groups in Cameroon say the government there refused to provide official information about Covid-19 to media outlets and journalists perceived to be critical of it.

The Nigerian government has suspended 92 journalists’ access to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential villa. The government’s regular Covid-19 briefings are often held at the presidential villa. Media freedom organisations say the government has “decided to limit access to the president’s office to a handful of media outlets that are nearly all controlled by the government or supportive of it”.

The Nigerian government claimed the suspensions of the journalists’ access to the president was part of Covid-19 public health restrictions, which limits public assemblies to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority of Zambia, the country’s broadcasting regulator, has cancelled the television licence of Prime TV, an independent broadcaster, instructing it to stop broadcasting immediately. The Independent Broadcasting Authority, did not specify any action of Prime TV that has led to this controversial ruling, but said it was in the “interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order”.

On 1 April, Prime TV filed a petition to the Lusaka High Court against the government to have its broadcasting licence reinstated. In court papers, Prime TV says the cancellation of its broadcasting licence by the Zambian government is in retaliation to its independent coverage of government activities prior to Covid-19. 

Some governments are using the threat of Covid-19 in the same way they used the threat of terrorism before, to crush legitimate criticism, stifle freedom of expression and block requests for access to information. In some cases governments are charging reporters asking critical questions about their handling of Covid-19 with criminal charges.

Crackdown on media

Egypt for example has blocked or restricted access to a number of news websites and social media accounts since early March for allegedly spreading “rumours” about Covid-19 and for “disturbing public order”.

Before Covid-19, the Egyptian government used to regularly close down online platforms and social media accounts that were critical of the government, under the guise that they allegedly promoted “terrorism”.

This time the news website Huna Aden, the online site of the daily newspaper El Gomhoria El Youm, sites will be blocked for six months for allegedly spreading false “rumours” about Covid-19. Several Facebook and Twitter accounts which commented on the government’s readiness to tackle the pandemic were also blocked for reporting on the shortage of critical medicine.

Ethiopian federal police arrested Yayesew Shimelis for a post on his YouTube channel and Facebook page in which he said that the Ethiopian government had told religious leaders to prepare 200 000 graves to accommodate for deaths from Covid-19.

The Ethiopian ministry of health in a Facebook post, before Shimelis was arrested, alleged his report was untrue and said it was a deliberate attempt by him to misinform the public.

The Ethiopian government had been targeting Shimelis long before Covid-19 for his critical reportage. In the week before his arrest, he received a number of calls from the federal police questioning him about an interview he conducted with a former Ethiopian foreign minister, deemed critical by the government.

The government of Algeria has been accused by human rights organisations of using the Covid-19 crisis to “settle scores” with critical journalists who have been reporting on anti-government protests that preceded the coronavirus crisis.

One journalist, Khaled Drareni, an editor at the Algerian publication, the Casbah Tribune, was arrested for allegedly “inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity” over his critical Covid-19 coverage. In the past, Drareni had been arrested for his coverage of anti-government protests which had been staged every Friday for more than a year, before it was stopped because of Covid-19.

Many African countries’ security forces, enforcing compliance of Covid-19 measures, have used violent methods against those perceived not to be complying, thereby undermining basic human rights.

Hold governments accountable

In Ghana, police have been accused of assaulting civilians when enforcing compliance to the country’s lockdown. In one instance police horsewhipped a local government official, Adu Poku Christian, the district chief executive (DCE) for Afigya Kwabre South in the Ashanti Region, who was distributing face masks, water and sanitisers.

Kenyan police fired tear gas, shotguns and baton-charged people who they said were not following lockdown procedures. In Kenya, such is the lack of government information that many residents in Mathare, a settlement in Nairobi, were unaware there was one in place.

At some point, deaths from police violence to enforce curfews in Kenya were more than deaths from Covid-19 itself. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has since apologised for the excessive of violence by the police.

In Uganda, police attacked a shelter for homeless gay, lesbian and transgender youth in Wakiso, outside Kampala. They beat residents of the shelter with batons, clubs and fists and arrested 23 inhabitants. The police claimed residents of the shelter were contravening Covid-19 rules by assembling in a shelter.

The reporting by the media is essential in this, the biggest health catastrophe in generations. The media is important in raising public awareness, getting information about official measures to combat Covid-19 out and in general, through its reporting, helping to combat the spread of the virus.

Just as African governments have an obligation to “ensure preventive care, goods, and services” are available to all citizens, they equally must provide “accessible, accurate and evidence-based information” on Covid-19.

It is important that African governments allow citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, to get access to information, and for journalists to report without undue restrictions in the enforcement of Covid-19 measures. Security forces should under no circumstances undermine basic human rights, impinge on individual dignity or, in their enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions, discriminate on race, religion or class. Basic human rights should at all times inform African governments’ responses to Covid-19.

The media must hold governments accountable in tackling the virus and in upholding basic human rights. Civil society organisations similarly must continue to hold governments accountable, and support citizens where they can during these perilous times. 

** William Gumede is Executive Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg).

This is an edited extract from a presentation at a webinar titled “On Democracy and Authoritarianism: Systems, Ideologies, Freedom, and Vulnerabilities in the era of COVID-19”, organised by the Human Sciences Research Council on 15 April 2020.

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