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June in Africa: Taxing social media, the IPI World Congress, and more...

Jailed journalists, restrictive online legislation, media sustainability, and the impact of political transitions on independent media were brought to the forefront at the International Press Institute annual World Congress, held in Nigeria. Other developments in the region included government clampdowns on digital rights and freedoms - from harsh licensing requirements to a tax on social media users.

A protestor carries a placard as Kenyans took to the streets to call on the government to arrest people involved in massive corruption scandals, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 May 2018
A protestor carries a placard as Kenyans took to the streets to call on the government to arrest people involved in massive corruption scandals, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 May 2018

Allan Muturi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Spotlight on Africa: the IPI World Congress in Abuja, Nigeria

The 67th IPI World Congress (IPIWoCo2018) theme was "Why Good Journalism Matters", and holding the conference in Nigeria provided the perfect platform for the question on the lips of family, friends, media fraternity, and press freedom advocates for over two years: where is journalist Jones Abiri? A feature report in a Nigerian newspaper detailed a desperate appeal by Abiri's 80-year-old mother for news about the whereabouts of her son.

President Buhari spoke at the opening ceremonies. However, he sidestepped questions about Abiri's disappearance, only remarking broadly on how "good and responsible journalism remains vital to good governance, especially in an era of fake news and hate speeches."

The Congress included an Africa Media Forum, which featured prominent editors and executives from across the continent speaking on a diverse range of topics. Top of the agenda: outdated legislation that still remains on the statute books of countries throughout the continent, and which are being used to restrict freedom of expression.

With the rise of disinformation - in part a response to a dearth of information from public bodies - governments are also threatening to craft laws which criminalise what they term as "fake news". Participants also raised concern at the crafting of new laws restricting citizens' access to social media platforms through taxes and inhibiting content creators from posting online because of stringent licensing requirements. Khadija Sharife, the Africa editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), suggested that instead of focusing on winning back public confidence in the media, journalists should concentrate on writing the truth and getting citizens to be mindful of the truth.

The IPI World Press Freedom Hero award ceremony on 23 July underscored the physical absence of award recipient Rafael Marques de Morais, who was unable to attend the award ceremony due to a court case.

The Angolan activist and journalist had been accused, along with editor Mariano Bras, of insulting the state, for an investigative story about an alleged illegal land acquisition involving the attorney general, João Maria de Sousa. The article was first published in November 2016 in MakaAngola - an online anti-corruption website established and run by Morais. In the same month it was republished by Bras in the print publication O Crime.

Six months after publication, Morais and Bras were arrested and charged with "outrage to a body of sovereignty and injury against public authority", under Angola's Law on Crimes against State Security.

After an intermittent legal battle fought over 12 months, they were finally acquitted on 1 July. In her ruling, Judge Josina Ferreira Falcão said public officials should be able to deal with criticism and stand up to scrutiny. "This court believes that we would be doing very bad as a society that wants to progress, if we punished the messengers of bad news," she added.

Elections, internet shutdowns and efforts to control social media

Internet shutdowns prior to or during elections have become common practice throughout the continent. Internet Sans Frontières reported the shutdown of internet services in Mali during the first week of June, just after police had violently suppressed a demonstration organised by opposition political parties calling for transparency in the forthcoming presidential elections (scheduled for 29 July). President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who is seeking another term in office, has been criticised for not doing enough to address ethnic violence, rising unemployment, or the Islamist insurgency in the northern part of the country.

Zimbabwe's minister of information, communication and technology promised the internet would function properly during the election period in July, saying the government "did not have the appetite to interfere with social media freedoms."

Not featured as prominently, but certainly impacting citizens, is the trend by African governments to craft laws specifically designed to discourage the general public from accessing social media platforms.

Zambia is joining the growing list of countries that implement stringent requirements and social media taxation to curb online freedom of expression. Mofyta Chisala, the director for consumer protection in the Information and Communications Technology Agency (ZICTA), announced: "We are coming up with a law where now every administrator must be registered, so that he can put ethics or codes of conduct for anyone who is going to be on that blog, because at the end of the day we are going to arrest that person who created the WhatsApp group, or the editor or co-ordinator of the blog, and that should not be the end game."

Provisions in Tanzania's Electronic and Postal Communications Regulation have started requiring bloggers and radio and television stations to register with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, and pay a total amount of US$923 before operating. As a result, many popular websites have been forced to close.

For example, popular online platform Jamii Forums shut down several days before the regulations came into effect. The company was unable to comply with licensing requirements compelling them to apply and register for a licence at a cost of over US$900. They would also have been required to have all their bloggers certified, so they chose to shut down, instead. Bloggers and other online content producers caught defying the new regulations face fines of $2200 or a year in prison.

New Reports

As the digital space becomes increasingly popular for self-expression and information sharing, it is also prone to greater restrictions.

Not only does Nigeria have the highest number of internet users on the African continent, every sector of its society has been dramatically transformed by the introduction of digital technology. A report titled Tightening the Noose on Freedom of Expression: Status of Internet Freedom in Nigeria 2018 compiled by Paradigm Initiative and the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), looks at the state of digital rights and freedoms in the country. When asked if they felt free expressing themselves on social media, 2259 people responded, with 47% responding yes, and 40% no. The study also tested websites blocked by Nigeria's National Communications Commission to see how they were blocked, and if they were still blocked.

A study by African Freedom of Expression titled Annual report on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa tracked incidents of increased threats to the enjoyment of internet rights and freedoms across 12 countries. It also looks at attempts by governments to control cyberspace through the introduction of policies and practices that seek to restrict online freedoms.

Regarding the ever-important issue of access, MISA Zimbabwe analysed the affordability of over-the-top services, after the country's regulating body and Ministry of ICT and Cyber Security announced an almost 60% reduction in out-of-bundle mobile data. MISA observed that it was a move in the right direction, but steps still need to be taken to continue to make the top services more accessible.

The Legal Front

On 21 July, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ordered the Tanzanian government to lift its 2016 ban on the kiSwahili tabloid Mseto. The EACJ ruled that the ban violated freedom of expression as defined in the Tanzanian constitution, and also breached the Treaty for the establishment of the East African Community (EAC).

In preparation for the 2019 South African general elections, South Africa's Constitutional Court upheld an earlier ruling by Cape Town's High Court ordering Parliament to amend certain parts of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia), which provides voters with information about who funds political parties. The Court ruled that for voters to competently exercise their right to vote it was vital for them to have information on the private funding that political parties receive.

One of the biggest threats to press freedom in Liberia is the use of criminal defamation laws against media houses. This results in drawn out and expensive legal battles, excessive fines, or prison sentences. President George Weah's decision to submit a modified bill to Parliament that would decriminalise speech offences and create a freer media environment was welcomed with joy.

The greatest triumph in June, however, was the lifting of the state of emergency in Ethiopia, two months early. Ethiopia had imposed a six-month state of emergency following the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February of this year.

In Brief

On 6 June, fifteen leading human rights organisations sent a petition to President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland, calling for an end to the government crackdown on press freedom rights throughout the country. The petitioners expressed deep concern about the Somaliland authorities' recent attacks on journalists and individuals, which aim to silence criticism and public protests, and to suppress dissemination of information about the territorial conflict.

The assault on a journalist returning from exile and the attack on a journalist covering a protest against sand mining in Faraba Banta, about 50km south of the capital, illustrated the mentality of the police force in The Gambia - something carried over from former president Jammeh's brutal rule. In a statement, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights expressed concern.

In South Africa, the South African National Editors Forum issued a statement expressing their shock at Chatsworth police for manhandling and abusing Sunday Tribune journalist, Karinda Jagmohan and attempting to search her bags and delete footage. Jagmohan had been filming a policeman pushing a protestor to the ground.

In Uganda, security officials prevented several radio stations from playing musician Bosmic Otim's song titled Mac Onywalo Buru, (fire produces ash), on the grounds that its message was misleading. The song calls out specific ministers and members of Parliament in what critics describe as taunting and indecent language.

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