Attacks on Free Expression in Southern Africa – Projection for 2022

We are entering the third year of living in the age of COVID-19, a pandemic that has changed our ways of living in a manner never budgeted for in the history of humankind.

In an age of pandemics, it is a risky enterprise to project the year ahead with accuracy as the environment is fast-paced in all its facets.

Suffice to note that in an era of law unpredictability, such as the one we are in, it is even a daunting task to project beyond a single day as new variants are breaking forth at a faster pace with scientists still to find a lasting solution to the crisis.

In the middle of such complexities, I will take the risk of projecting broadly how expression will be one of the easy targets from a multiplicity of angles and try to propose the way forward for the Southern Africa region on the same.

Journalism under siege

In the year 2022, it is highly likely that the press will experience another wave of attacks in the region.

Gauging from the 2021 Reporters Without Borders Index, the attacks and threats on media freedom are going to escalate.

Only three Southern African countries made progress according to the 2021 Index, namely, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia, moving up by one, seven and five steps, respectively, compared to previous rankings.

Namibia retained its position as the best ranked African country in promoting media freedom, though it dropped by one point on the rankings to number 24 compared to its position at 23 in 2020.

The bulk of the countries drifted in the wrong direction or remained stuck in their previous unfavourable rankings.

South Africa moved backwards by a single step in 2021 to number 32, Zimbabwe fell four steps backwards to position 130, while Mozambique plunged to 108.

Mauritius’ standing and that of Madagascar deteriorated by five and three steps to 61 and 57, respectively.

Lesotho moved two steps backwards to number 88, while Tanzania and Eswatini remained unchanged at 124 and 141, respectively.

Suffice to note that these trends show that journalism is a soft target for regimes in southern Africa, a scapegoat and a victim in the fight against the spread of the pandemic.

Back to the RSF rankings, what is worrying is that Southern African countries are concentrated between the rankings of between 100 and 180 categories – this is dangerous.

If the region continues on this trajectory, the year 2022 is likely to register more attacks against journalism and expression in the region.

While Namibia is a shining beacon, for now, developments in the country relating to its proposals to introduce a cyber security law and failure to move with speed towards enacting an access to information law, can tip the scale in the wrong direction.

Elections and attacks on expression

In 2022, Lesotho will be holding its general elections. These will be held concurrently with local government elections, which were postponed in 2016.

Angola is due to hold its general elections in August 2022.

Eswatini, Madagascar and Zimbabwe are scheduled for elections in 2023, while Zimbabwe will hold also House of Assembly and local government by-elections in March 2022.

Elections in fragile states are a matter of life and death for both the citizens and journalists, as these are high stakes national, and by extension, regional processes.

Wherein, generally they are supposed to be an expression of a country, society or a people’s free choice and an entry into a contract of governance, elections are a complex process in the majority of fragile and somewhat broken states.

In all these countries, journalists report in the line of fire and this increases the need to emphasise the safety and security of journalists and ensure that citizens always have access to information.

In this regard, the year 2022 could be a defining one in terms of setting the tempo for elections and democracy in the highlighted SADC member states. The implications of this are huge.

Many a time, the true character of our respective countries in the region is tested during such processes, with many failing the test thereby proving that they are democracies gone rogue.

Possibilities of internet shutdowns

Tied to the electoral processes, is that leaders in failed states will resort to internet shutdowns or disruptions, particularly in cases where the ruling elites face tight competition from opposition political parties.

Trends of 2021 showed beyond doubt that despotic regimes are now more even inclined towards retaining power by hook and crook, including shutting down the net.

In the year 2021, three countries shut down the internet; namely the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 21, during presidential elections; the Monarch of Eswatini shut down the internet twice on June 29 and October 15 in response to protests. The Zambian government shut down the internet on August 12 during the general elections. These were some of the 14 governments globally that resorted to shutting down the internet in response to internal pressures.

As such, the year 2022 will be a fertile ground for monitoring how the governments will respond to electoral pressures.

Application of fake news laws

As new COVID-19 variants emerge, regional governments are likely to consolidate undemocratic laws that were enacted at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 and probably add new laws that clawback on the enjoyment of expression.

The enactment of fake news regulations, which started with South Africa and triggered the same motions in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, require concerted efforts towards their repeal.

Governments in the region will conveniently cite the outbreak of new variants as justification for coming up with even more retrogressive laws.

In 2022, in the wake of the Omicron variant detected in the region, and the negative response by European nations and the United States, governments will invest in more laws that will further weaponise the pandemic and crackdown on citizens. Such a negative response was deemed to be punishing the region for its openness and transparency in the use of advance to dictate the deadly virus.

Deepening of the media sustainability crisis

While the media, particularly print, have been able to innovate and survive these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an existential threat to an industry that is already limping in the SADC region.

The media in Southern Africa has over the years been facing a myriad of problems such as dwindling advertising revenue and declining sales for the print media amid the rapid shift to digital and online platforms.

Many industries have been impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. However, the collapse of media in the region could have a serious impact on freedom of speech and democracy.

A free and unfettered media is one of the pillars of democracy, thus, the collapse of media organisations poses a threat to democracy.

For countries to continue to develop, there is a need for plurality and diverse media platforms so that citizens are kept well informed for them to make informed choices and decisions.

While an argument can be made that the gap created by the closure of print publications is being filled by online platforms, however, statistics show that only 34% of the region’s population has access to the internet. This leaves 66% of the regional population without enough sources for news and other information, much to the detriment of democracy.

There is an urgent need for genuine dialogue among stakeholders in the media ecosystems to forcefully push for a tangible framework upon which the media can be considered for relief support to recapitalise and sustain its operations.

Global leadership on retreat

The detection of the Omicron variant in Botswana in 2021, further highlighted the grave danger that we are existing in as humankind.

Developments at the global level show that leadership and democracy are regressing at a frightening scale.

This has emerged at different stages on a significant international scale.

The most worrying being Brexit and the subsequent gaining of traction among nations towards inward-looking polity and rising nationalism. This has been worsened by the rise of right-wing politics across Europe and the Americas.

Worse off, the open clash between America and China triggers economic global tremors. The growing dominance of nations such as Russia and China in global diplomacy further threatens the democratic dividend that was achieved through decades of solidarity and collaboration by the peoples of the world.

To this end, in the year 2022, though the bulk of the nations remain inward-looking, the realisation should be that the pandemic calls for outward-looking leadership – as we are not safe until every corner of the planet is safe.

In this regard, there is a need to deepen a people-centred approach towards development and broaden the scales of solidarity in 2022 than before.

The entrenchment of mass surveillance

In the quest to track the levels of vaccinations and consolidate the struggles against the pandemic and the push for smart cities, the governments of Southern Africa are likely to increase mass surveillance.

At the beginning of 2021, in February, Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based research organisation, conducted research on the use of spyware.

It detected that there were seven African countries using the Circles spyware to snoop on citizens’ communications.

Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, are among the seven African countries from the SADC region. The number of countries and scale of surveillance is likely to increase especially with Eswatini facing unrest due to protests and the growing dominance of China in the region.

Shrinking civic space

A dangerous trend in the form of restricting or shutting down civic organisations is gaining ground, starting with Uganda in East Africa, while Zimbabwe is in the process of crafting a law to empower the government to shut down civil society organisations that are performing checks and balances on officialdom.

This is in addition to the arrests, assaults, detention, and abductions of civic actors in the region. Case in point being the deteriorating situation in Eswatini, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. In 2022, with elections looming large, civic space is bound to shrink further.

Enactment of repressive cybersecurity laws

The SADC heads of government in Maputo, in August 2020, made a resolution to take “pre-emptive measures against external interference, the impact of fake news and abuse of social media particularly in electoral processes”. In the wake of the resolution, there seems to be a dangerous regional consensus to crackdown on free expression online. A number of Southern African countries have since begun or accelerated cyber security law-making, which we found somewhat problematic, as the proposed pieces of legislation have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and of the media in Southern Africa.

To illustrate this, countries such as Botswana, Eswatini, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have already passed cyber security and cybercrime laws, while countries such as Namibia and Lesotho are in the process of crafting legislation on cyber security and cybercrime. While Namibia is working on the wording of the same. There is a need for countries in the SADC region to adopt a Human Rights-Based Approach. Such an approach will ensure that enacted or proposed legislation, take into account the urgent need to balance cybersecurity needs with the need to protect and promote the fundamental right to privacy. SADC member states should further ensure that the enacted and proposed domestic laws are aligned with the African Union (AU) Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection & the ACHPR’s Revised Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to information.

Way forward

In such complex times, wherein there is increased coordination among states and governments in the region on the need to attack expression, CSOs need to redefine solidarity, collaboration and rooting their shield in people-centred advocacy.

This entails that CSOs take proactive steps in mainstreaming expression with the broader human rights rubric while targeting new players that have the power to influence decision making by wayward regimes in the region.

There is a need for establishing new means upon which the various stakeholders take up the responsibility of ensuring that citizens of the region enjoy their unfettered enjoyment of their rights to expression, access to information and media freedom while they perform their role as an agency to defend the same.

In addition, stakeholders in the region should invest and support efforts towards establishing a regional platform upon which, and through people to people solidarity, the region’s citizens coalesce and share ideas on activism, which will become a shield to counter retrogressive steps by SADC member states.

There is a need for further coordination towards regional lobby and advocacy to keep these threats in check at a higher level through the United Nations and African Union special mechanisms. The value will be unlocked through pushing for enforcement of resolutions and commitments by member states.

However, due to the varied nature of activism and advocacy, the processes can at times be long and frustrating. Deliberate steps should therefore be taken towards continuously building a new crop of leaders and activists to sustain the pushback against the assaults against expression in Southern Africa.

Suffice to note that in 2022, humanity will continue to be on trial, hence the need for collective responses to ensure the verdict is in our favour.

Source: MISA Zimbabwe

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