Curbing COVID-19 in Africa: Songs, music, and maps versus teargas and rubber bullets

As many have noted, the last month has felt more like a year. There have been numerous recent developments in sub-Saharan Africa in response to the spread of COVID-19.

In Namibia, the Ministry of Health and Social Services is sending out a daily broadcast message to all mobile subscribers highlighting preventative measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

Every phone call made in Ethiopia starts with an educational message about the coronavirus.

In Malawi, the message is being spread through song and dance.

In Rwanda there are portable sinks where commuters can wash their hands with soap and water before boarding a bus.

In Zimbabwe, Chenesai Mangoma – who describes herself as a creative economy entrepreneur, lawyer and designer – is producing masks and giving them to communities.

… and in Uganda, popular musician Bobi Wine, together with Nubian Li, composed the Coronavirus song.

These creative initiatives are being buttressed by incentives compelling people to stay at home.

The early closure of schools coincided with school lessons in Gambia being facilitated via radio and television. A pan-African subscription-based digital satellite television operator is offering free access to news channels, and a publisher of educational books is allowing free access to its curriculum platform.

Internet based service providers are also playing their part, from raising transaction limits on mobile platforms to lowering the transaction fees for payments via mobile phone. There are promotional offers of data bundles for people working from home and free text messaging services being offered to governments.

On the flip side, it is through technology that misleading information is spreading fast and furiously across borders, from bogus remedies to incorrect statistics,and fact checking units are working in overdrive.

BBC Reality Check is exposing the myths and remedies being peddled over social media platforms, while AfricaCheck is sifting through and checking the veracity of viral WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts, tweets and news articles sent to them by consumers. The verified information is divided into six categories, and is available on their fact-checking portal.

Namibia Fact Check has also refuted many of the remedies being offered on social media platforms as preventative measures.

The crucial link to distinguish polluted from accurate information lies in access to information from public bodies. In recognition of this, Ghana’s Ministry of Information is working with key stakeholders and diverse media organisations to develop guidelines for media reportage, supporting information that is accurate and factual, and ensuring that awareness campaigns are shared through the media.

The Ministry has also created a COVID-19 website to provide media houses with updated and factual information.

In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, health officials are “partnering with the messaging service owned by Facebook to send push notifications to users with advice on symptoms and how to avoid infection,” reports Reuters.

For some governments, the antidote to fighting the infodemic of polluted information has been the enactment of laws criminalising disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically. Instead of supporting the media to facilitate access to information, they are finding ways to restrict the flow of information.

South Africa and Zimbabwe have both passed regulations with punitive measures in the form of fines and jail sentences for anyone knowingly or unknowingly passing on false information about the coronavirus. Uganda has warned that it will use the existing legislation, namely the Computer Misuse Act 2011, the Data Protection and Privacy Act and other Penal laws of Uganda, to prosecute offenders.

Journalists in Niger and Ethiopia have been charged under existing laws for their articles, and a man in Kenya was “charged with publishing false information with the intent to cause panic”, after allegedly spreading disinformation about the coronavirus.

Another disturbing trend is how governments are using the COVID-19 threat to push for cellphone surveillance. South African cellphone companies have agreed to give the government cellphone location data to track people who test positive. Kenya is monitoring the mobile phones of individuals who are under self-isolation, and has threatened to arrest anyone who violates this restriction. It also announced that it “will launch a contact tracing app for public transport to provide critical contact data that will help trace back the movements of confirmed or suspected cases.”As IFEX member CIPESA warns: “while well intentioned, COVID-19 surveillance and data-based tracking interventions have been effected in haste, and with limited precedent and oversight mechanisms.”Referring to the exponential rise in infection rates and urging governments to take action, the Director General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Ghebreyesus told governments: “Africa should wake up, my continent should wake up.” Governments began heeding the advice, with South Africa being the first country on the continent to institute a 21 day national lockdown. Other countries have followed suit, and now 24 countries are either on full or partial lockdown.

The common and concerning denominator is that it is the security sector – the army and police – that is being used to enforce these regulations. The emerging trend is heavy handed tactics being used to control citizens.

In enforcing the curfew in Kenya, the police assaulted people boarding a ferry in Mombasa. The death of a taxi driver who was brutally assaulted for breaking the curfew after he ferried a pregnant woman to the hospital has also been blamed on the police.

The media have not been spared.

In Zimbabwe, newspaper vendors and three journalists in three different cities have been arrested so far. In Kenya, NTV journalist Peter Wainaina was beaten after taking pictures of police assaulting residents before the onset of curfew hours. After the first day of the lockdown, the South African National Editors’ Forum received several reports from journalists who were threatened or had their equipment taken by army and police personnel. TV reporter Tholi Totali Glody was knocked off his motorbike by police in the Democratic Republic of Congo while covering the lockdown in Likasi, the second-largest city in the Haut-Katanga province.

While advocating for the media’s right to be recognised as essential services staff,  the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) and the International Press Centre (IPC) have asked owners of media outlets to provide their staff with protective equipment while working in the office and when they go out in the field.

The media have also come in for their share of criticism. Some feel they missed a critical opportunity to question the one-size-fits-all approach adopted and shared by the WHO on preventing the spread of the virus. It took a while for them to start questioning the practical reality of physical distancing, hand washing, sanitising and self-isolating on a continent where the majority of citizens live in densely populated areas, with little access to safe water and limited means to buy sanitiser and soap.

As a result, governments have been adopting mitigation and prevention strategies that do not deal with Africa’s political, economic and social realities. Only recently have some media stepped up to offer narratives that speak to the lived realities of communities in Africa, sharing alternative ways to continue offering market produce and even different options for interventions to control the spread of the virus.

Mali elections go ahead despite insurgencies and kidnappings 

As March came to a close, Mali went ahead with their legislative elections despite the constant threat from armed groups, the kidnapping of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, and the announcement of the first COVID-19 related death, several hours before voting began.

Malians were electing new members of Parliament to the 147-seat National Assembly in the first legislative election since 2013. The voter turnout in some areas was as low as 7.5% – indicative of the situation in the country.

Mired in conflict since 2015, Mali’s election took place amidst attacks on polling stations, ransacking of equipment and the reported abduction of candidates and election observers. A week earlier, the country’s leading opposition leader was abducted along with six members of his team after campaigning near the town of Niafunke, in central Mali.

In the meantime, the number of reported coronavirus patients rose to 25 despite the nationwide curfew announced by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on 25 March, the same day the country reported its first two patients.

Lifeline for Malawi President wa Mutharika

Malawian President Peter Mutharika was given an inadvertent lifeline with the arrival of the COVID-19 virus on the African continent.

Despite no confirmed cases reported by the end of March, President Mutharika declared the pandemic a national disaster – a move that allowed him to announce mitigation measures that included the closure of schools and colleges, banning gatherings of more than 100 people, and the restriction of civil servants from travelling to regional and international meetings.

These restrictions brought an immediate halt to the periodic protests dogging his administration since the contested presidential election in 2019.

Postponements and protests in Guinea

While keeping his cards close to his chest on whether he will contest a new term, Guinea’s incumbent President Alpha Condé managed to get permission to change the country’s constitution after almost 92% of constituents expressed their approval on 22 March. The opposition had boycotted the referendum and legislative elections.

Just before the announcement of preliminary results of the referendum, Condé had announced a state of emergency imposing heavy restrictions on gatherings and other rights to contain the COVID-19 situation. As confirmed by Netblocks.org the internet was shut down on the eve of the referendum and the legislative elections, with normal service restored the day after polls.

With the stage now set for changes to the constitution to go through, there is a strong possibility that President Condé intends to stand for a third term.

In Brief

In a bid to promote access to information, MISA-Zimbabwe launched its first free internet WiFi hotspot at the Edward Ndlovu Memorial library in Gwanda.

In Zambia, a teenage boy could face up to five years behind bars for defaming President Edgar Lungu. The 15-year-old minor who was arrested by police is accused of insulting the president of the republic on Facebook, using a pseudonym.

Two of South Africa’s largest mobile service providers, MTN and Vodacom, finally consented to the Competitions Commission’s directive ordering the operators to lower their data tariffs by 30-50%. In December, the Competition Commission had given the two entities a February 2020 deadline to comply with this directive.

Soldiers in Guinea-Bissau have closed down state-owned national radio and TV stations and put them under armed guard since 29 February for their failure to cover Umaro Sissoco Embaló’s inauguration as president after confirmation of his victory in the second round of the presidential election.

The Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP) are concerned with the increase in journalists being arrested for comments they make on social media in Liberia. Charles Yates was interrogated by police on 23 and 25 March 2020, in connection with his Facebook post implicating the government in a corruption scam. Koluba Akoi was also arrested for a Facebook post he shared alleging the misappropriation of funds by the head of a college. He was charged with criminal conspiracy, criminal malevolence, and illegal disclosure of official documents.

Private radio station Radio Tongu was taken off-air by Ghana’s National Communications Authority after the Concerned Citizens of Tongu accused the station of “defamation, religious teaching to create confusion among churches and for political campaigns promoting the separatists’ agenda of the Western Togoland movement.”

New & Noteworthy

The Africa Freedom of Information Centre has launched a portal which provides real time statistics on COVID-19 on the African continent. It also provides a dashboard that provides real time updates on the pandemic, including the impact of the outbreak per month. 

The Media Legal Defence Initiative is offering support to the media – journalists, bloggers and media outlets facing litigation – in the form of legal fees or provision of legal expertise to the lawyer(s) defending the case.

The International Press Institute (IPI) will track violations against journalists covering the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of restrictions and attacks.

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Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

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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