Threat to media freedom and freedom of expression in SADC
MISA statement calls for urgent action by SADC governments
Despite constitutional provisions and political promises, southern Africa remains one of the world’s most secretive regions where governments continually seek to undermine media freedom, access to information and every citizen’s right to the freedom of expression. And sadly, the situation appears to be worsening.
In a hard hitting statement following its annual general meeting in Lusaka, the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) made its position very clear. “We wish to express our grave concern over the escalation in violations of media freedom and the freedom of expression across the region, including restrictions on access to information.”
MISA singled out the arrest and continued detention of Wilson Pondamali in Zambia, who was arrested as part of the government’s crackdown on reporters apparently linked to the independent news website, the Zambian Watchdog. “We strongly condemn the continued detention of Wilson Pondamali,” said the statement. “We call for his immediate release to allow the legal process to take its course.”
MISA also urged SADC governments to bring to justice those implicated in violations of media freedom, including the killing, maiming, beating and unlawful arrests and detentions of scores of journalists in the region.
Along with attacks on media freedom, MISA noted that a number of attempts to enact access to information laws have stalled in the region. The organisation called on the governments of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia to “expedite the adoption of access to information laws without further delay” and urged Namibia to begin the process.
But the statement also had tough words for Zimbabwe. In particular, MISA is concerned that the government has failed to repeal or at least extensively amend the authoritarian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and a range of other pieces of repressive legislation, which are “inimical to the right of access to information provided for under the new Constitution of Zimbabwe”.
And MISA also called on South African President Jacob Zuma to set a good example for the region by not signing into law the Protection of State Information Bill, which in MISA’s view “undermines the right of access to information as guaranteed by the constitution of the country”.
And while battles over media freedom and access to information have been raging for years, MISA is also concerned about attempts to limit people’s freedom of expression in cyberspace, including blocking websites in Zambia, banning bulk SMS services in Zimbabwe, and introducing restrictive laws.
“We condemn, in the strongest terms, efforts aimed at inhibiting freedom of expression and access to information through ICT platforms,” said MISA.
Overall, the statement paints a bleak picture. Instead of opening up and becoming more transparent, southern African governments are using even more tools and resources to restrict the freedom of the media, to prevent citizen’s access to information and to limit people’s freedom of expression.
But the MISA statement also makes clear that the current challenges will only serve to re-energise the institution and to strengthen its commitment to fighting for more information, more freedom to speak out and more media freedom.
“The role of the media in society cannot be overemphasized,” said the statement. “It is against this background that we demand that governments in the region take appropriate steps to create a safe environment for the media that engenders the free practice of journalism.”