Attacks on whistleblowers, legislating patriotism, #IWD and a bittersweet tribute

The celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March provided a crucial springboard to foreground issues, concerns, and stories of triumph across the continent. Women took centre stage – from the launch of a new podcast featuring youth voices, to a book honouring women leaders, to speaking out against misogynistic attacks.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) #PoweroftheStreets podcast kicked off the March International Women’s Day celebrations. Hosted by Audrey Kawire Wabwire, the first interviews feature powerful young feminists and queer activists “speaking truth to power and building movements for justice in Africa.”

Namibian First Lady Monica Geingos, who has been on the receiving end of insults and misogynistic attacks, hit back at the trolls who have commented on her looks, accused her of being a ‘gold digger’, body shamed and even “slut shamed” her. In line with this year’s theme, Geingos said she was “challenging gendered insults this Women’s Day.” Upon posting her video online using the hashtag #YourSilenceWillNotProtectYou, she went on to encourage women to speak up about harassment.

Conversations further up the continent were in a similar vein.

With women the main targets of online bullying, trolling, cyber stalking, defamation, hate speech, and public shaming, IFEX member the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) used its IWD message to urge governments to do more to protect women online. At a media briefing, MFWA shared their plans for a mapping exercise to identify the gaps that need to be filled to ensure that women can safely access and use the internet and other ICTs.

Another IFEX member, the International Press Centre (IPC), gave a statement challenging the Nigerian government to improve women’s participation in politics. It was a clarion call supported by leaders of women-centred organisations in Uganda. Attending a virtual Women in Leadership conference hosted by First Lady Fatima Maada Bio, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio spoke about his government’s promise to “go beyond mere words and mere commitments to real action that will change lives and permanently change the life narratives of millions of our womenfolk for the better and change the future of our nation forever.”

In Senegal, away from the spotlight on national protests with brutal outcomes, a group of women marked #IWD2021 by staging a peaceful sit-in calling for an end to the violent crackdown on protestors and a return to peace and respect of rights, especially those of women.

Facebook launched LeadHERs: Life Lessons From African Women – a collection of inspiring stories and life advice from 19 women from the continent breaking boundaries in fields such as media, entertainment, politics, education and business. The book, made available online and at no cost, is brought to life through the artwork of Massira Keita from Côte d’Ivoire, Lulu Kitololo from Kenya, Karabo Poppy from South Africa, and Awele Emili from Nigeria.

Tanzanian film Binti, directed by Seko Shamte, produced by sisters Angela and Ailinda Ruhinda, and featuring four women in lead roles, also made its debut on 8 March, during an event in the capital Dar es Salaam.

Magufuli’s legacy of division

In death, as in life, the legacy left by Magufuli is a divided nation.

His contradictory style of leadership meant that those who benefitted from his patronage and were close to his axis of power were lavish in their praise for his strong stance on cutting back on public expenditure, his zero tolerance policy against corruption, and his determination to push for the development of his country. Much of his good work was outweighed by policies such as the barring of pregnant teenage girls from school or the passing of the 2015 Statistics Act which criminalised the circulation of statistics and independent research without government approval.

Feminist blogger Elsie Eyakuze’s obituary, in the form of an open “Dear John” letter, powerfully captures the mixed emotions of fellow Tanzanians and Africans across the continent.

The most devastating impact of his rule was on media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information. The big question following the appointment of Samia Suluhu Hassan as the country’s first woman president is whether Tanzania will change direction, or stay the course.

The reward for unmasking corruption: a death sentence

From the moment Gradi Koko and Navy Malela exposed illicit financial flows involving an Israeli businessman who was, at the time, subject to international sanctions, they became targets of death threats and a smear campaign. This discrediting of information and the sources behind it was extended to the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), and Global Witness.

Former auditors at a Democratic Republic of Congo bank, Koko and Malela found they had been sentenced to death for “criminal conspiracy” via social media. Without their lawyers being informed or present at the hearing, the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Kinshasa handed down a ruling sentencing the whistleblowers to death in absentia for “forgery,” “theft,” “private corruption,” “breach of professional secrecy,” and “criminal conspiracy”.

The international outcry following the announcement gave impetus to an open letter signed by 51 regional and international organisations imploring President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo to quash the sentence.

Enforced disappearances in Uganda

In February, opposition politician Bobi Wine released a list with the names of 243 Ugandans who have disappeared in recent months.

Reports of opposition activists and campaigners being picked up from their homes started in the run-up to January’s bitterly contested general election. Stories of the enforced disappearances are harrowing. Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke to victims who said that their abductors beat and detained them in “safe houses,” questioned them about their political affiliation or their role in the protests, and then dropped them off at random locations.

As Ugandans pushed for information on their missing family members and friends, the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga delegated Internal Affairs Minister General Haji Abubaker Jeje Odongo with the task of presenting Parliament with a list of all Ugandans kidnapped by security agencies before, during, and after the January 14 general election. She said “the continued refusal to make the list public is a violation of rights of all these people.”

According to an HRW news release: “On 4 March, Minister Odongo presented a list to parliament of 177 people in military detention who had been arrested between 18 November 2020, and 8 February 2021, allegedly for “participating in riots,” “possession of military stores,” and “meetings planning post-election violence.”

Rwanda’s form of forced justice

Regional and international civil society organisations marked this year’s Commonwealth Day – which happened to coincide with #IWD –  by publishing an open letter addressed to heads of Commonwealth governments due to meet in Rwanda in June. It asks government heads to encourage Rwanda to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the death, last year, of popular gospel musician Kizito Mihigo while he was in police custody.

In a country where political opponents and outspoken critics of the president have a tendency to turn up dead or disappear, the official explanation was immediately met with skepticism.

Rwandan police claim that Mihigo died by suicide – an assertion that government critics such as Diane Rwigara are doubtful about: “I have been in prison in Remera, there is not even a window, … there are ventilation holes. So, I don’t see how anyone can tie sheets in that kind of hole,” said Rwigara about the state’s claim that Mihigo hung himself using bed sheets in prison.

Mihigo was once in good standing with President Kagame’s government. He helped pen the national anthem, made guest appearances at state events, and even got an award from the First Lady in 2011. But in 2014 he wrote a song criticising the war crimes of Kagame’s ruling party when taking up power. He found himself in prison – a 10-year sentence for conspiracy against the state.

Zambia passes a controversial cybercrime law

Towards the end of February, the Zambian government passed the Cyber Security and Cybercrime law, despite having shelved it last year after vehement opposition from civil society organisations.

While the government is adamant that the new law will curb cybercrime, coordinate cyber security matters, and help promote the responsible use of social media platforms, opposition United Party for National Development party leader Jack Mwiimbu describes it as one of the most controversial pieces of legislation since the country’s independence.

Chapter One Foundation argue the law could be abused for the purpose of infringing on freedom of expression, the right to information, and the right to privacy.

Similar to legislation in several other African countries, Zambia’s Cyber Security and Cybercrime Act 2021 also prohibits the publication of information which is “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate”. While this is understood as an attempt to curb the spread of polluted information, it is a clause that has been often used to arrest journalists exposing corruption.

Provisions in the law also allow for unfettered access to the monitoring of communication.

In an opinion piece prior to the passing of the law, (perennial) opposition party president Haikande Hichilema pointed out that the bill falls short of several regional and international standards of human rights-aligned laws including the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection (Malabo Convention) ratified by Zambia.

… and Sierra Leone debates a controversial cybercrime law

Sporadic incidents of violence in two different villages in Sierra Leone prompted parliamentarians to also consider a proposed cybercrime bill which has the perilous potential of turning a “citizen’s smartphone into a crime scene.” While the objective is to fight cyber-related crimes, the bill in its current form has several shortcomings. “Several citizens and opposition members argue that the bill serves as a conduit for government suppression of digital rights and freedoms – especially in instances where the government falters,” reports Global Voices.

Zimbabwe planning to legislate patriotism

To ensure the positive promotion of the country’s brand and image, the Zimbabwean parliament debated the enactment of a Patriotic Bill, which critics believe is yet another way to legitimise its determination to restrict freedom of speech. The proposed Patriotic Bill, initially suggested in October last year, will criminalise the “peddling of falsehoods” and stipulates harsh penalties for citizens who “campaign against” national interests.

The government’s justification for the punitive law is that the “negative portrayal of the country’s image and reputation has an adverse and crippling impact on the country’s economic prospects, especially on tourism, investment, and the welfare of the vulnerable such as youths, women and the disabled.”

New & Noteworthy

Nigerian Afrobeat musician Burna Boy, who in recent months has been speaking out against human rights violations on the continent, won the Best Global Music Album Grammy category for his album Twice as Tall, at the 2021 Grammy Awards. In recent months Burna Boy has added his voice to the criticism against police brutality in the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, the online #ZimbabweanLivesMatter conversations, spoken out against xenophobic attacks in South Africa, and shared a solidarity message about the riots in Senegal.

The World Health Organisation Foundation has added two African women to its board. Cameroonian tech mogul Rebecca Enonchong has been selected as the foundation’s deputy chair, and South African advocate Tuli Madonsela has been appointed as a member. The WHO Foundation is an independent grant-making entity that provides funds to the WHO, through which it facilitates support from the public and donors.

Troubled by the exclusion of the Black female form in art, South African artist Zandile Tshabalala had her first solo exhibition at ADA Contemporary Art Gallery in Accra, Ghana, at the end of February. Titled Enter Paradise, her intricate series of paintings show Black female figures immersed in sensual dreamscapes, in turn hinting to the role of Black women throughout art history.

In Brief

  • In South Africa, two women student journalists – Nondumiso Lehutso and Aphelele Buqwana – were shot and injured by a police officer while covering student protests over financial exclusion at the University of Witwatersrand. The South African Editors’ Forum called on the South African Police Service to investigate police brutality during the demonstrations.
  • Two Cameroonian transgender women – social media celebrity Mildred Loic and her friend Moute Rolland – were denied bail after being arrested at a restaurant for “attempted homosexuality” on 8 February 2021. They were also charged with public indecency and not carrying identification. Their trial, which was supposed to commence on 24 March, has been postponed to 12 April 2021.
  • Attacks on journalists in Guinea Bissau are ramping up. In early March journalist António Aly Silva, who is critical of President Sissoco Embaló, was abducted, robbed, and savagely assaulted by unknown assailants. Days later, fellow journalist Adão Ramalho from Radio Capital FM was assaulted and almost abducted by armed men. Two of Adão Ramalho’s fellow journalists from Radio Capital FM – Sumba Nansil and Sabino Santos – are facing criminal defamation charges brought by the country’s national energy utility company. Last year Radio Capital FM was raided by unidentified men in military uniform who vandalised the studio.
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF), along with other organisations, is calling for the release of Guinea sports journalist Amadou Diouldé Diallo, who was arrested on 27 February and charged with insulting President Alpha Condé. Diallo’s lawyers point out that press offenses have been decriminalised, and he should not be in prison.
  • In Cameroon, Amadou Vamoulké, an ailing 71-year-old journalist who has been in prison since 2016, wrote a letter to the justice minister seeking to be released due to his frail health and the risk that he could get COVID-19. The former head of state broadcaster CRTV is facing charges of misusing funds. His trial is on-going.
  • Mariano Brás, editor of Angolan independent weekly O Crime, was interrogated by Angola’s Criminal Investigation Service over an article perceived as contemptuous of  President João Lourenço. A criminal case has been opened, but the charges are still not clear, according to Brás’ lawyer. Brás is already facing defamation charges after a minister filed a complaint in 2020.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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