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Africa in September: From the crazy to the brave to the uniquely momentous

Women parliamentarians in Tanzania were banned from entering Parliament wearing fake nails and wigs, the ban on Kenyan film Rafiki was temporarily lifted, journalists in Cameroon connected to fight sexual harassment, an editor scored a legal victory, and pushback from young activists reversed a social media tax.

A women-run mini office with a printer and mobile phones, in Bafoussam, Cameroon, 12 January 2011
A women-run mini office with a printer and mobile phones, in Bafoussam, Cameroon, 12 January 2011

Carsten ten Brink/Flickr, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Using the power of the podium to formulate national policy

Trampling on Tanzanians' freedoms and rights is not new. What is of concern are the impulsive and regressive announcements being made and actions being taken that directly and negatively impact on women's rights.

Taking what seems to be a cue from President John Magufuli, the speaker of Tanzania's parliament declared "a ban on all MPs with false eyelashes and false fingernails from stepping into Parliament."

The discussion in Parliament started out with the deputy minister for health, Dr Faustine Ndugulile, explaining how Tanzania's health care could become increasingly burdened by women experiencing health issues linked to wearing wigs and artificial nails. It ended with Speaker of Parliament Job Ndugai announcing: "With the powers vested in me by the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, I now ban all MPs with false eyelashes and false fingernails from stepping into Parliament." He added that he would also decide on whether or not to prohibit MPs wearing excessive make-up from entering the building.

Just a day before the ban was announced, President Magufuli advised citizens attending a rally that there was no need for birth control, and "outsiders who are promoting it are giving bad advice." At another rally, in 2017, he had declared that as long as he was president, no pregnant students would be allowed to return to school or readmitted after giving birth.

Despite criticism and pushback from activists on these and many other issues, President Magufuli continues clamping down hard on democratic rights. What is worrying is his insatiable appetite for using his podium to make impetuous statements that become national policy.

Payoff for young activists' protest over social media tax in Benin

Responses to an online campaign that moved offline - #TaxePasMesMo - compelled the Benin government into withdrawing the tax it had imposed on citizens accessing social media platforms.

The government was planning to charge internet users 5 CFA francs (USD$0.008) per megabyte for accessing Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, and a 5% fee, on top of taxes, on texting and calls.

Young activists created an online petition against the levy, and also took their frustrations onto platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp to complain about the tax and demand its removal. The reach of this online activism extended across borders as the petition was signed by consumers from Tanzania and Uganda.

The activists extended this protest to offline actions, staging peaceful sit in demonstrations on 21 September: the International Day of Peace. Mail and Guardian reported that the following day "the president of Benin convened a meeting with the service providers and associate ministers. After the meeting, an official statement was issued calling for the cancellation of the taxes".

Mylène Flicka, a Beninese activist, said "We are very happy to have been heard, but this victory is above all a proof of the strength of the social media and a proof of the power of a mobilized youth. We remain vigilant and we will never lower our guard over our freedoms again."

This growing trend on the African continent of curbing citizens digital rights by sanctioning policies that introduce levies to access internet and digital platforms was kickstarted by Tanzania. Amongst other contentious provisions, Tanzania requires bloggers to be licensed and to pay a steep fee to post content online.

Uganda followed suit and imposed a daily fee of 200 shillings (US$0.05) to access social media platforms as well as internet-based messaging and voice applications, while Kenya has imposed an additional tax on the internet. Uganda and most recently Zimbabwe are taxing mobile money transactions, with Kenya proposing a similar levy on mobile money transfers and telecommunications. Zambia approved a tax on internet calls.

Cameroon women journalists launch #StopSexualHarassment237

While sexual harassment is a pervasive global problem, and the media sector is no exception, it continues to be a contentious topic. The perpetrators of sexual offences are often the gatekeepers in the media outlets, wielding power that is difficult to challenge. The #MeToo campaign ignited in America is providing more impetus for women to speak out and take decisive action.

British journalist Hannah Storm, working with the Poynter Institute, captured it well in her account of the all-too-familiar story of what women in the media have to contend with. She bravely relates her personal story of the wolf whistles, the effort of trying to fit in with the guys, the groping or dealing with the mentor more interested in sexual favours than in guiding and encouraging.

Disturbed by the increase in similar types of behaviour, well-known Cameroonian journalist Comfort Mussa decided to use her influence to trigger action in her country. Posting a message on her Facebook page, Mussa asked female journalists: "Who's in?" to team up to fight against widespread sexual harassment in the media. A quick and overwhelming response led to the successful launch of a multi-media campaign: #StopSexualHarassment237. (237 is Cameroon's country code.)

Following a planning strategy in August, the group hosted a Twitter chat to springboard the initiative - the Cameroonian version of the global #MeToo movement. To date, a series of short videos with female journalists speaking out about sexual harassment have been posted on social media platforms and a letter has been sent to tertiary institutions, trainers, press associations and media managers to raise awareness and invite collaboration.

The initiative has received attention, with some male bosses trivializing the issue and "blaming women for dressing provocatively and having a flirtatious attitude," and other male colleagues joining the women on radio shows and pledging their commitment to reforming their media organizations.

Lauded, banned, unbanned and banned again

Wanting to move away from the usual narrative of Africa being about "war, poverty and devastation", Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu instead chose to focus on a nuanced love story between two women. Rafiki is based on the award-winning 2007 novel Jambula Tree written by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko. When it was acclaimed for being Kenya's first entry at the Cannes Film Festival, the head of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) Ezekiel Mutua proudly hailed director Kahiu as the one of country's film making icons. A few days later the KFCB banned the film, on the grounds that it promoted homosexuality and that it contained "homosexual scenes which were against the law, the culture and moral values of the Kenyan people."

After a local and global campaign, the ban was lifted by High Court judge Wilfrida Okwany, who said she was "not convinced Kenya is such weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film". Challenging stereotypes at home and abroad, the movie showed to packed audiences in Nairobi during the short period the ban was lifted.

A momentary victory for LGBTQI+ rights in Kenya, the temporary ban allowed Kahiu to submit it as an entry for an Oscar nomination. Nomination regulations for entry require a foreign film to be shown in its home country.

Penal Codes - archaic legislation used to keep the media in check

A legal battle over a span of three years finally came to an end when sedition charges against Outsa Mokone, editor of Botswana's Sunday Standard, were finally dropped.

Mokone, who was arrested in September 2014 and detained, was the first person in the country charged with "publishing a seditious publication contrary to section 51 (1) (c) as read with section 50(1) (a) of the Penal Code; read with Section 332(1) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act." The particular sections outlaws any "intention to bring into hatred or contempt; or to excite disaffection against the person of the President or the government of Botswana."

The charges emanated over an article alleging that former president Ian Khama had tried to conceal an accident. The original author of the article, Edgar Tsimane, sought asylum in South Africa after a tip-off that he was being sought by the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS), the country's notorious intelligence agency.

At the time, Mokone believed the raid on his offices along with his arrest had more to do with previous articles his paper had carried some time ago, on alleged corruption in the DISS that implicated the president.

In a country some regard as a bastion of democracy, Mokone's case highlights that criminal defamation is still on the books, in the form of outdated sedition laws. While rarely used, their continued existence in many countries across Africa is a tool used by leaders keen to stifle the media and keep it in check.

A PEN International analytical report on the impact of criminal defamation laws in Africa, highlighting the voices and experiences of writers across the continent, clearly shows "that criminal defamation laws are most often invoked by state authorities not to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens but to shield those wielding the greatest power."

"… the cost of these laws is significant - they stifle independent comment and political debate, deny the public the right to know about stories of national importance and deter investigative journalism. These laws are incompatible with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights."

In Brief

In Ghana, assailants allegedly hired by politician Hassan Ayariga attacked a senior reporter with the Ghana News Agency (GNA) in Bawku, in the upper east region of the country.

In South Africa, the South African National Editors' Forum expressed concern over utterances made by a private investigator Paul O'Sullivan against Sunday Times journalist Poloko Tau. Tau sent questions to O'Sullivan privately, and the investigator responded by publicly threatening, insulting and intimidating the journalist.

Renouveau FM, a privately-owned radio station in Bamako, Mali, was briefly suspended. According to its director, Sidi Mohamed Dicko, Bamako's governor accused the host of a popular current affairs show of alleged incitement of hatred and revolt. The station was back on the air 11 days later, after Mali's media regulator, the Haute Autorité de la Communication (HAC), nullified the governor's suspension of the radio station, but ordered the cancellation of the programme.

In Uganda, police detained journalists who were covering the return of opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, from the United States. Six of the journalists were arrested and detained at Entebbe International for several hours and their equipment confiscated. Earlier in the month, Wine had been arrested, tortured, rearrested, and prevented from leaving the country to seek medical treatment.

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