August was a challenging month for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association across the continent. This was particularly evident in Togo, where police waged a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters demanding a limit on presidential terms. On 19 August 2017, thousands of Togolese citizens - in four cities across the country - took to the streets calling for an end to the "Gnassingbé dynasty."
President Faure Gnassingbé is currently serving his third term; his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema, was in power for 38 years.
Togolese officials say 2 civilians were killed in the city of Sokodé, but the opposition has reported seven deaths.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) condemned the attacks, stating that they were "a flagrant violation of citizens' right to peaceful assembly which must not go unpunished." The group called for thorough investigations to identify the perpetrators of the attacks.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), citizens were also violently reprimanded for speaking out against the government. On 31 July, security forces fired tear gas and – according to some sources - live rounds at protesters calling for an election calendar. "We firmly condemn this police crackdown, which did not spare journalists who were just doing their job," stated Tshivis T. Tshivuadi, the secretary-general of Journalist in Danger (JED).
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 15 journalists in various cities were detained while covering the demonstrations. Most of them were released after authorities deleted their photos and videos. But not all of them were so fortunate. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that journalist Jean Pierre Tshibitshabu was charged with "incitement and provocation" after being detained, and has been attacked in custody.
"Congolese authorities should immediately release Jean Pierre Tshibitshabu, drop all charges against the journalist, and take action against those who attacked him in prison," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal.
But authorities in the DRC are not the only ones being held to account for their actions, or lack thereof. In Nigeria, free expression activists are urging government officials to uphold freedom of information legislation.
Nigeria's hall of shame
President Muhammadu Buhari received a rather unconventional form of recognition in August. The Nigerian leader and his office were inducted into the "Freedom of Information Hall of Shame". Created by Media Rights Agenda (MRA), the Freedom of Information Hall of Shame aims to draw attention to institutions and public officials who undermine the effectiveness of Nigeria's 2011 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
"MRA Inducts Presidency Into 'FOI Hall Of Shame,' Accuses It Of Gross Failure Of Leadership" https://t.co/UkpHtKiHgn— Edetaen Ojo (@EdetOjo) August 15, 2017
MRA's decision to grant the presidency with such infamous recognition was based on numerous failures to implement the act. For example, in the six years since the act was adopted, MRA states that it is not aware of the presidency granting a single request for information. Instead, MRA notes that the presidency has either refused or completely ignored requests, without providing written notice outlining reasons for denied requests.
In a statement, Ridwan Sulaimon, MRA's Programme Manager in charge of freedom of information, said: "This clear disregard by the presidency for the provisions of the FOI Act in all respects amounts to impunity at the highest level of government. It is a gross failure of leadership that the institution of government, which should set an example for all other public institutions, has put itself in such an untenable position that it no longer has the moral authority to insist on compliance by other institutions of government."
770 days. As of 6 September, that's how long journalist Ahmed Abba has been in detention. The Hausa-language correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) was detained by authorities in Cameroon in July 2015 after covering attacks by terrorist group Boko Haram.
Following torture, isolation and a trial that was postponed 18 times, Abba was fined 85,000 Euros and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of "laundering the proceeds of a terrorist act."
The international community has decried Abba's detention from the onset, and took a step further by forming a coalition of support to Abba. On 16 August - the day before Abba was scheduled to appeal his prison sentence - RSF released a statement announcing that it had partnered with media, artists, and fellow IFEX members JED, CPJ, and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to call for the journalist's release.
"Bringing together well-known figures from around the world and especially Africa, the committee has decided to begin online by creating a Facebook page in which we will share the messages of his supporters," said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk.
But later that night, Abba's lawyers discovered that their client's name had been taken off the military tribunal's list of hearings without explanation and postponed to a later date, according to RFI. The postponement of the trial will only further galvanize Abba's supporters, who have pledged to continue advocating for his release. "This is just the first step," stated Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "The campaign will grow in strength if the authorities do not free Ahmed Abba."
Unfortunately, Cameroon was not the only West African country to penalise journalists for their work in August.
Cartoons, WhatsApp and West African media excellence
In Senegal, Touba TV journalist Ouleye Mané was released after spending over a month in detention for sharing a cartoon of President Macky Sall over WhatsApp. The image portrayed Sall in a compromising position. Mané was detained along with three others on charges of "publishing pictures which offend public morality," according to MFWA.
The reporter's guild Jeunes Reporters du Sénégal (CJRS) - one of MFWA's partners - had this to say on the case: "Cartoon is a form of expression for journalists. Although we do not encourage insults and any form of denigration of the image of the president, this is a matter of journalistic responsibility and not of legality."
But the instances of censorship in August were balanced by initiatives celebrating courageous journalism in West Africa.
On 19 August, the MFWA put out a call for submissions for its inaugural West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards, scheduled to take place on 28 October 2017.
The award ceremony will celebrate original work published through a media outlet in West Africa in the categories of human rights reporting, investigative reporting, Sustainable Development Goals reporting, women's rights reporting, among others. Click here for more information.
Focus on gender: Historic ruling for LGBTQI+ rights in South Africa
On 18 August 2017, an historic ruling found Jon Qwelane - South Africa's former ambassador to Uganda - guilty of hate speech.
The ruling, delivered by the South Gauteng High Court, pertained to an column that Qwelane had written in the Sunday Sun in July 2008 entitled Call me names, but gay is not okay. Qwelane's article had praised Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's "unflinching and unapologetic stance" on homosexuality, according to News24.
Judge Dimpheletse Moshidi said the statement was "...hurtful, harmful and incites propaganda hate towards the LGBT community."
The case had been brought forward by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), who responded the ruling with the following statement:
"In light of the ongoing discrimination and violence directed at the LGBTI GNC [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming ] community, the commission was of the view that the article reinforced and perpetuated the prejudice directed at LGBTI GNC persons, and that the contents of the article exceeded the limits of freedom of expression."
'Hate speech' - and how it is defined - is a hotly debated topic in the free expression community. To learn more about different interpretations and understandings of hateful speech and the delicate balance with free expression, check out ARTICLE 19's toolkit on 'hate speech' and Susan Benesch's Dangerous Speech Project.
Post-election violence in Kenya
August ended on a sombre note for free expression.
In Kenya, at least 24 people were killed when protests broke out following the hotly contested presidential elections on 8 August 2017, which saw incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta win with 54.27 percent of the votes. Police used tear gas and fired live ammunition at supporters of opposition leader of Raila Odinga in Kisumu - an opposition stronghold - as well as the Nairobi slums of Kibera and Mathare, where an 8-year-old child was killed by a stray bullet.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch researcher Otsieno Namwaya condemned police violence: "People have a right to protest peacefully, and Kenyan authorities should urgently put a stop to police abuse and hold those responsible to account."
Reporters were also attacked while covering the violence; in the week following Kenya's national election, CPJ spoke with 10 journalists who said they were assaulted or harassed in the course of their reporting.
Post-election harassment did not stop there; civil society was targeted as well. The Guardian reports that Kenya's NGO regulator attempted to shut down two groups who had been involved in elections monitoring - the African Centre of Open Governance and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission.
Shortly thereafter, Maina Kiai - who sits on the board of both organisations and is the former UN Special Rapporteur on Free Assembly - was briefly detained at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport as he travelled to Amsterdam. Kiai had called the recent elections illegal and said that Kenyatta threatens to take the country backwards, according to The Guardian. "I'm worried that this regime will be quite harsh and take an Erdogan approach to civil society, human rights and civil liberties," Kiai said.
On 1 September 2017, the Supreme Court of Kenya ruled the 8 August election to be unconstitutional, citing irregularities, and ordered a new one to be held within 60 days.
"He chose to bear witness"
On 26 August 2017, at least 19 people were killed in South Sudan when fighting broke out between government and rebel forces; among them was Christopher Allen, an American freelance journalist. Allen, 26, had been reporting on the rebel forces for two weeks, prior to being killed.
On 29 August, CPJ released a statement calling for an investigation into Allen's death, in which it urged authorities to respect all journalists' status as civilians.
In an interview with Voice of America, Allen's mother reflected on her son's dedication to reporting in conflict zones: "He chose to bear witness; he chose to look unflinchingly at what was painful and to find the humanity within it."