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Africa round-up: Internet censorship, Cambridge Analytica ripples and more

It was an eventful month on the continent with the approval of an amendment in South Africa regulating online content and the consideration of a bill seeking to restrict freedom of expression and media freedom, a disturbing trend of attacks on journalists by political party loyalists, the deportation of a photojournalist from Mauritania, and the spreading tentacles of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in Africa.

A patrol car belonging to the Hawks, The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, is seen outside the compound of a controversial business family in Johannesburg, South Africa, 14 February 2018
A patrol car belonging to the Hawks, The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, is seen outside the compound of a controversial business family in Johannesburg, South Africa, 14 February 2018


Journalist's home raided; concerns over internet censorship bill

This month's round up starts off with a spotlight on South Africa, better known as Africa's rainbow nation, with a thriving democracy and a strong constitution. This image was slightly marred with the passing of restrictive legislation and the raid on the home of an investigative journalist.

The first setback was towards the end of February when frantic tweets were sent out, as The Hawks - South Africa's special crimes unit set up in 2008 to investigate organised crime, corruption and economic crimes - raided the home of investigative journalist and author Jacques Pauw.

Facing charges for the contents for his provocative book, The President's Keeper, which details the allegedly corrupt and compromised power networks in the government of former President Jacob Zuma, Pauw expressed surprised that he was being raided a year after his book hit the streets.

The South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) immediately condemned the Hawks search allegedly for "secret state security files as part of their investigation", describing it as a threat to media freedom, and speculated "that rogue elements in the state security agencies are now fighting back to intimidate and harass journalists".

Concerns were raised by different organisations that authorities had reverted to outdated legislation to carry out the raid, and that the Hawks were focusing on intimidating Pauw for his exposure of corruption instead of investigating people in positions of power.

Barely a week into March, South Africa's Parliament approved a draft amendment to the Films and Publications Amendment Act, in spite of unease expressed by industry stakeholders and the public over concerns that it would be used as a means of censorship for online content.

The amendment, more commonly referred to as the 'internet censorship bill', will provide the Films and Publications Board with a mandate to scrutinize and order censorship of online material, including user-generated content on social media platforms. It will also reclassify online platforms like YouTube and Netflix as "content distributors" and require them to pay an annual fee. It also allows for the possible blocking of non-compliant online distributors at the level of the Internet Service Provider.

As Parliament discussed the Critical Infrastructure Protection bill, which is poised to replace the controversial Key Points Act, Radio 702.5 carried an online article on the red flags raised by investigative journalism unit amaBhungane around the debatable clauses.

One of the contentious clauses in the bill imposes excessive criminal sanctions on journalists and members of the public who want to photograph national key points - of which there are currently over 200 across the country - where public access is restricted, or expose corruption there. In addition to this, the proposed bill restricts and criminalises protesting and other activities at national key points.

On a more celebratory note, former editor and current adjunct professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, Anton Harber, replenished the jar of hope with his praise and perspective on the contribution made by journalists and investigative journalism in "forcing accountability and transparency by the State."

Speaking at the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism awards ceremony, he commended the media: "We have much to celebrate and honour this year, for I know of only a few times in the history of a nation when journalists have played such a clear and crucial role in bringing a country back from the brink. Journalists were not alone in this, working side-by-side with civil society and the judiciary in particular, but never has it been clearer how important a free press, skilled investigative reporters and the support of brave editors is to our democracy, our economy and the people who live in it.

"For the last few years, it seemed that we were facing an impervious culture of impunity as many state institutions of accountability faltered and corruption appeared to be undermining our democracy and destroying our economy. But investigative journalists beavered away, piecing together the elements of what grew into a remarkable story that indicated not just corruption but a systematic attempt to control the machinery of state for personal gain, what has become known as state capture," he added.

Cambridge Analytica scandal makes waves

Several days after the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit the international headlines, tweets were doing the rounds on the African continent with links to breaking stories on the data analytics firm's involvement in election campaigns in Nigeria and Kenya.

The Guardian's breaking story focused on Cambridge Analytica's involvement in the Nigerian election in early 2015. According to the article the data analytics firm was allegedly hired by a Nigerian billionaire, for an estimated £2m, to support the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan. "The role of Cambridge Analytica was to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation."

Continental publication Quartz Africa highlighted the role of Cambridge Analytica in the Kenyan election campaign primarily in terms of disseminating misinformation to sway public opinion, producing fake news and attack ads against opposition candidates. Facebook and its platform WhatsApp were key conduits of these false narratives, forcing the tech giant to place adverts in local newspapers and roll out an education tool providing tips on spotting false stories.

However, a report by Privacy International (PI) points out that the assumption by many Kenyans that Cambridge Analytica was responsible for setting up two websites - The Real Raila, a virulent attack campaign against presidential hopeful Raila Odinga, and Uhuru for Us, a site showcasing President Uhuru Kenyatta's accomplishments - was inaccurate. PI revealed that the two online campaigns "were actually created by Harris Media LLC, a far-right American digital media company, on behalf of President Kenyatta's re-election campaign."

Solidarity in the midst of attacks on media

An inclination by political party officials to verbally and physically assault journalists is being highlighted more frequently on social media platforms.

Two members of an opposition party in Zimbabwe entered the offices of TellZim, a media house based in Masvingo and verbally abused and threatened journalists and staff in the office. The two were reacting to a story published by TellZim News which reported that their party was allegedly planning to replace all sitting councillors in their area with new ones. The visibly angry party members accused the publication of being partisan and warned TellZim News against publishing articles which portray their party - the MDC-T - in a bad light.

In a separate incident, in a different party of the country, journalists working for the state media walked out of a ruling party meeting after the party's provincial chairperson asked journalists from the privately-owned media to leave the meeting.

In neighbouring South Africa, Deputy President of the Economic Freedom Fighters Floyd Shivambu apologised for his attack on journalist Adrian de Kock outside Parliament. Shivambu was caught on camera with his hand around the throat of Netwerk24 journalist. In his statement, Shivambu acknowledged that the "scuffle" happened, but said it "was never an assault on the journalist or media freedom" and that he regretted "the incident and believe it should have been handled differently."

Fighting politically motivated internet and radio shutdowns

In the DRC, non-governmental organisations frustrated by the intermittent internet disruptions devised strong and innovative tactics to mount pressure on internet service providers to address the continued shutdown of internet services which they say are politically motivated. The NGOs planned a series of submissions, starting with a report to the Companies' ombudsman and Magistrates Court, for further investigation and actions; filing a complaint in a Congolese commercial court seeking legal remedies for prejudices suffered, and submitting complaints before the National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the countries of origin of the multinationals - France for Orange, UK and South Africa for Vodacom, and India for Airtel.

Similarly, broadcasters on the continent face the constant threat of being shut down or suspended, and this month radio stations in South Sudan and the DRC were impacted. Ten members of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) in the Democratic Republic of Congo raided the headquarters of a television channel, Radio Télévision Vision Grands Lacs (RTVGL), a TV channel based in Bukavu, in the eastern province of Sud-Kivu and disconnected its broadcast signal.

Earlier in March, the South Sudan Media Regulatory Authority (SSMRA) ordered the UN backed Radio Miraya to suspend its operations, citing its failure to obtain a broadcasting licence. In a letter to South Sudan's National Communication Authority, the SSMRA ordered it to "withdraw the frequency 101 FM," that was allocated to Radio Miraya for its "persistent non-compliance and refusal to be regulated".

Nigeria: draft hate speech laws and threats to protection of sources

Concerned by increasing violence in the country, the Nigerian Senate introduced a Bill that seeks to establish an "Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches", to enforce hate speech laws. For offences such as harassment on the grounds of ethnicity or racial contempt, a perpetrator will be sentenced to "not less than a five-year jail term or a fine of not less than N10 million or both."

The Bill also contains an ominous clause that seeks the death penalty for hate speech if it results in the killing of a person.

Also towards the end of February, Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja bureau chief of the privately owned Daily Newspaper, was detained by Nigeria's Department of State Services (DSS) for several days. During his detention he was relentlessly pushed to reveal the source of his story regarding ransom payments made to secure the release of school girls held hostage by Boko Haram. He was unconditionally released on March 6 at 10:30 pm local time.

Calls for media reforms in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe gears up for elections this year. Even though the new President has not set a date, the Zimbabwe chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa has written to the Southern African Development Community highlighting the lack of progress on media reforms. The implementation of media reforms was recommended by the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM) soon after the 2013 elections.

During the time the letter was sent to SADC, the Southern African Development Community Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) was in the country, meeting with civil society organisations to review the media environment in the run up to elections.

Focus on gender

In winding up the March round up, it is only appropriate to highlight two outstanding women on the continent, appropriately profiled by IFEX on their Faces of Free Expression hub page during the week of International Women's Day celebrations – Fatou Jagne-Senghor and Gwen Lister.

Senghor is an ardent defender of human rights, freedom of expression and media freedom across the African continent for two decades, and has lobbied for policy reforms on international platforms. The contributions by Jagne Senghor to the expansion of free expression and media freedom space have been transformative throughout the African continent.

Award winning journalist Gwen Lister has survived threats, assaults, arrests, and several attempts on her life, but never stepped back from speaking truth to power. She is also recognised for her anti-apartheid activistism and is co-chair of the 1991 UN-sponsored conference which authored the Windhoek Declaration, co-founder of the Media Institute for Southern Africa, and former editor (and founder) of the renowned independent newspaper, The Namibian.

In brief:

In Sudan, the editor Ashram Abdelaziz and journalist Hassan Warag of the independent daily Al-Jareeda, were convicted for defamation by the Khartoum Press and Publications Court and jailed when they refused to pay the optional fine.

Mauritanian authorities arrested and deported freelance photojournalist Seif Kousmate earlier this month, claiming he was a suspected terrorist. They also cited "his activism in support of the cause of the descendants of slaves."

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