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Activists released & an RTI win, but internet shutdowns and journalist attacks continue: Africa in April

Hosting UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day event in Accra, Ghana, did little to stay authorities on the continent, many of whom maintained their hard stance against journalists while reports of numerous media violations were reported across the continent.

A general view of the Parliament of Ghana during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit, in the capital Accra, 1 March 2016
A general view of the Parliament of Ghana during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit, in the capital Accra, 1 March 2016

Okan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In addition to the honour of hosting WPFD (World Press Freedom Day), Ghana was also able to celebrate its RSF World Press Freedom Index 2018 ranking as number one in Africa and its 23rd place, globally. However, the country was also forced to acknowledge a report by Media Foundation for West Africa which highlighted attacks on 17 journalists over the last 15 months.

The most disturbing of these reported incidents was the assault on Latif Idrissu after the journalist asked a policeman the name of one of the anti-riot vehicles. Instead of responding, the policeman attacked him, and was joined by other officers. Idrissu suffered facial, neck and rib injuries.

The thorny issue of the lack of a Right to Information (RTI) Act in Ghana was also brought up, both before and during the opening ceremony of World Press Freedom Day.

The enactment of the RTI Bill has been on the table for the last 17 years, and in his address on Independence Day, 6 March, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo reiterated the promise that the Bill would be sent to Parliament. Two weeks later, the Right to information Coalition hit the streets of Accra handing out leaflets demanding the Bill be presented to parliament before it went on recess. All hopes of it being enacted before WPFD were dashed.

As an aside to her keynote address at the opening ceremony of the WPFD event in Accra, Nnenna Nkwakanma, Senior Policy Manager at the Worldwide Web Foundation, made mention of Ghana's promise to enact the ATI law in 2017 and the fact that one year later, the Bill was still pending. She urged the authorities to pass the law before the year was out.

Across the border in Liberia, the media sector had to deal with a series of events through the month of April - the most difficult being the murder of journalist Tyrone Browne and the death of well-known Kamara Abdullai Kamara, better known as KAK.

During the course of the month President George Weah verbally attacked BBC stringer Jonathan Paye-Layle which seemed to give the mayor of Monrovia the go ahead for a verbal assault against Rodney Sieh, the managing editor of Front Page Africa. Before the dust had settled, the FPA was temporarily shut down following the filing of a multi-million dollar civil defamation suit against the paper by one of its advertisers.

What left Liberians reeling was the dumping of the body of journalist Tyron Brown on the doorsteps of his house on 16 April. Just as the media fraternity was coming to terms with the murder of Brown, there was news of the death of well-known journalist Kamara Abdullai Kamara, the former President of the Press Union of Liberia.

Brutality against journalists was at the centre of a decision by the National Journalists for Human Rights in Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) to boycott all police activities and events in protest against the violence inflicted by them on journalists. Over the last few months, journalists have been prevented from reporting on police cases and instead have been brutally assaulted when trying to cover court cases involving the security sector.

The abduction and brutal assault of well-known journalist and human rights lawyer Ericino de Salema towards the end of March highlights the challenges faced by media practitioners in Mozambique who work under the constant threat of being captured themselves or having family members kidnapped. Finding themselves at the end of the barrel of a gun is something journalists anticipate.

No stranger to the courts, Angolan human rights activist and journalist Rafael Marques de Morais once again had to deal with an adjournment of his trial. His charges relate to a story that Marques wrote in 2016 about a purchase of land by former attorney-general Joao Maria de Sousa. The twist this time is that his hearing will be held in camera as it was decided that the Attorney General has special privileges.

Journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo continue working while dealing with threats, intimidation, prolonged detention or death.

Women journalists in Sudan have to work out ways to deal with perilous working conditions. One of these women is Anna Nimiriano, editor-in-chief of the Juba Monitor. Nimiriano faces both external and internal pressures. When her newspaper published an incorrect photo of a general, "men arrived at her office and threatened: 'we will take you to a place where you won't know yourself' - meaning they would kill her." Internally, she is defied by male staff who question her role as editor giving out orders, considering she is a woman.

In Ethiopia, the state of emergency, reinstated for the second time in 18 months, was once again used to come down on dissenting voices. Towards the end of March, the authorities rearrested journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesghen Desalegn, Zone 9 bloggers Befekadu Hailu and Mahlet Fantahun, and De Birhan Blog author Zelalem Workagegnehu. They were with several other colleagues and friends attending an award-giving ceremony to recognise the sacrifices the activists have made when they were arrested.

Their release came on the heels of the inauguration of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. Regarded as a young and dynamic reformer, the appointment of Ahmed is seen as a promising move that may herald much needed democratic reforms in Ethiopia.

In a crackdown towards the end of March, Eritrean authorities arrested Mohammednur Yahya, Editor-in-Chief of the Arabic newspaper Eritrea Alhaditha, Abdulkader Ahmed, features editor of Tigrinya newspaper Haddas Ertra, and journalist Abubeker Abdelawel.


Internet and social media shutdowns around elections

A disturbingly growing trend on the African continent is the interruption or complete shutdown of internet and joining the list this month were Chad and Sierra Leone.

As soon as the polling stations in Sierra Leone closed on 31 March, in the presidential run-off, the country shut down the Internet and disconnected all mobile communication services. According to media reports Sierra Leone Decides - an election monitoring group - said the measure was to stop the National Electoral Commission and other bodies from sharing results on the elections with party affiliates.

Since the beginning of April, social media users in Chad have been unable to access Facebook and Whatsapp via two major Internet Service Providers - Airtel and Tigo. Neither government nor the ISPs provided reasons for the disconnection to services, but according to media reports, Airtel and Tigo blame the disruptions on technical problems.


Freedom of Information win

Ending on a high note: There was good news from Nigeria, when a landmark ruling by the Court of Appeals decreed that Nigerian states are required to fulfil requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI). The decision came on the back of an appeal filed by journalist Martins Alo against the Speaker of Ondo State House of Assembly and Auditor-General of Ondo State.

Alo sought legal redress when his request for the audited report of Ondo State Government was rejected. However, the High Court ruled in favour of the Ondo State government, stating that Nigeria's FoI Act was not applicable to states, that Alo had no right to demand how the state was spending money, and that the request was not in the public interest.

The High Court ruling was overturned by a three-member panel of the Court of Appeal who agreed with Alo that the FoI Act was applicable to states, and that it was in the public interest for the state government to release its audited report.

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