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Benin's internet shutdown, Bobi Wine arrested in Uganda, What's Crap on WhatsApp and more

April was a bittersweet month for Africa - Mozambican journalist Amade Abubacar was released on bail after three months in prison, along with Germano Daniel Adriano. Netflix picked up an all-female African animated film, there were new initiatives in South Africa ahead of elections, popular musician/politician Bobi Wine jailed, and we saw again the grim reality of being a journalist in Nigeria and the targeting of vocal environmentalists.

Opposition figurehead Bobi Wine walks handcuffed together with another prisoner before boarding a prison bus leading him to Luzira prison in Kampala, Uganda, 29 April 2019
Opposition figurehead Bobi Wine walks handcuffed together with another prisoner before boarding a prison bus leading him to Luzira prison in Kampala, Uganda, 29 April 2019

NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI/AFP/Getty Images

A relentless campaign driven by a host of media freedom and freedom of expression advocates and activists finally paid off. Mozambican journalists Amade Abubacar and Germano Daniel Adriano were released on bail on 23 April after three months in jail. Member organisations of the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) together with regional and international organisations had put out a joint statement on 11 April calling on authorities in Mozambique to unconditionally release journalist Amade Abubacar. Two weeks later their case was brought before a judge in Pemba city, where the court ruled that journalists Amade Abubacar and Germano Daniel Adriano should be released on bail.

Abubacar had been languishing in jail since 5 January when police officers from Macomia District arrested him without a warrant. He had been interviewing residents of Cabo Delgado province who were fleeing from armed attacks in the area. Adriano was arrested a few weeks later, but no formal charges were brought against either of them until 16 April. They are now both awaiting trial on charges of "public incitement of a crime through electronic media", "incitement" and "injury against public forces officials". According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), MISA Mozambique has pledged to keep fighting for the journalists' immediate and unconditional release, which human rights groups around the world have been urging for weeks.

Since June 2018, the media have been restricted from going into the Cabo Delgado province by the army, and journalists found working in the area have been intimidated, harassed, or detained.


Bobi Wine arrested and charged

After captivating a diverse audience of IFEX members at the 2019 strategy meeting in Berlin, popular Ugandan musician and politician Bobi Wine returned home to deal with cancelled concerts over the Easter holidays, fans being teargassed and arrested, temporary detention, house arrest and his rearrest on charges relating to protests in Kampala against social media taxes in July 2018.

On 30 April, Bobi Wine – aka Robert Kyagulanyi – was charged with holding an illegal public assembly and remanded to a maximum-security prison in Kampala. Clashes broke out between his supporters and police as they took to the streets protesting his arrest.

Dressed in his trademark red beret, he told the court he had not committed a crime. According to a VOA report he said: "I am only here because I disagree with the political leadership of this country and in particular President Museveni," he said.


Three African NGOs voted into IFEX membership

During the recently held IFEX General Meeting in Berlin, Germany welcomed ADISI-Cameroun, the Gambia Press Union and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa to its membership.


Fighting disinformation ahead of elections

In gearing up for general elections on 8 May, South Africa organisations have initiated two novel and interesting campaigns to deal with disinformation and misinformation. Both rely heavily on public involvement.

South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission has teamed up with Media Monitoring South Africa to launch the world's first-ever online reporting platform - Real411.org.za.

The website Real411.org.za will deal with complaints regarding the publication of false and defamatory allegations about political parties, but will also allow objections about language that incites violence or discrimination.

South African citizens can access the Real 411 through its website and submit a complaint either in English or in the vernacular language they are most comfortable with. The complaint will be submitted directly to the IEC's Directorate for electoral offences where it will be reviewed by experts. The investigators will submit their recommendations to electoral commissioners based on their findings, which will then be submitted to the complainant.

Another first-ever project of its kind, What's Crap on WhatsApp is being piloted by AfricaCheck, a South African based fact-checking organisation, to deal with the deluge of disinformation flooding this popular platform. As highlighted in a Quartz Africa article: WhatsApp is the social media platform of choice across all of Africa. Dubious messages and videos can be sent to Africa Check's dedicated WhatsApp number with the added option of tweeting questionable messages to the Twitter page. Africa Check will go through the content sent to them, put together data on what is factual and what is not, and present it to WhatsApp followers as the What's Crap on WhatsApp show.


Breaking new ground

Netflix announced the launch of the first ever original African animated film Mama K's Team 4 - created by Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema, designed by Cameroonian artist Malcolm Wope, and produced by a South Africa-based studio, Triggerfish Animation. The story revolves around four teenage girls living in a futuristic version of Lusaka, which is Zambia's capital. Writer Mulendema says she "hoped to introduce the world to four strong African girls who save the day in their own fun and crazy way."


Nigeria: Concerns about Buhari

Journalists in Nigeria expressed their reservations and concerns as President Muhammad Buhari begins his second term in office, post-February 2019 elections. Speaking to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), one of the journalists drew attention to Buhari's military background and his tendency to clamp down on government critics. A common thread in all the observations is that the Buhari administration's history of attacking media outlets, persecuting journalists and silencing critical voices is a grim reality the media may have to deal with over the next few years.


Benin: When elections undermine democracy

As internet shutdowns become synonymous with elections, Benin is the latest country to join the growing list of governments disrupting internet services at a time when they are urgently needed. As citizens prepared to vote in the country's parliamentary elections on 28 April, social media and information sharing platforms were blocked.

According to network data from the NetBlock's Internet Observatory, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and messaging apps WhatsApp, Telegram and Viber were among the affected apps. As the day went on, the internet was completely cut off and access to VPNs and TORs was restricted. Full internet access resumed a day later.

Prior to polling day, five opposition parties were barred from participating in Benin's legislative elections. The remaining two parties are known for their loyalty to President Patrice Talon. The exclusion of competing parties is particularly poignant because Benin was one of the first African countries to introduce multiparty elections in the early 1990s.

"[U]nder Talon, whose entry into politics was initially hailed as a departure from the domination of the entrenched political class, the government has clamped down on media, curbed the right to strike and used the army to quell protests," reports Bloomberg.


South African community activists targeted

Threats and attacks against environmental activists have been on the rise in both volume and ferocity. A new report by Human Rights Watch, We Know Our Lives Are in Danger: Environment of Fear in South Africa's Mining-Affected Communities, prepared with groundWork, Earthjustice and the Centre for Environmental Rights, highlights the risks and challenges environmental activists in South Africa face when speaking out against the impact of mining activities in their communities.


In brief

A disturbing 152 violations ranging from killings to kidnapping, physical attacks, arrests and detentions, and freedom of assembly violations were recorded during 2018 and documented by the Media Foundation for West Africa in their 2018 West Africa Freedom of Expression Monitor report.

The Annual Freedom of Expression Situation in Africa Report produced by AFEX for 2018 highlights the high level of impunity on the continent for crimes against journalists based on 208 freedom of expression violations recorded during 2018, of which only 14 received remedial action.

Two journalists from the Comores, Abdallah Abdou Hassane and Oubeidillah Mchangama, working for critical news outlet FCFK, were arrested and are facing multiple charges including defamation, disturbing public order, incitement to violence, offence against the head of state, insulting the magistrate, and forgery.

The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled that multiple sections of Tanzania's 2016 Media Services Act, including those on sedition, criminal defamation, and false news publication, restrict press freedom and freedom of expression, and breach the constitutive treaty of the East African Community.

Two popular bloggers in Mauritania, Abderrahmane Weddady and Sheikh Ould Jiddou were detained for republishing and commenting on a story that had made the headlines in various international media outlets.

In Harare, Lovejoy Mutongwiza, a reporter with 263Chat, was taking pictures of a joint operation by the ZRP working with the Harare municipal police to arrest vendors operating in the vicinity of the 263Chat offices. Lovejoy reports that he was pursued into the media outlet's offices, after which officers of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) intentionally shot three teargas canisters into the offices, one of which hit Mutongwiza, and then barricaded the doors, preventing staff from escaping. Misa Zimbabwe has condemned the police actions.

At their annual general meeting, held on 7 April, AFEX expressed concern over the increasing attacks on media freedoms and freedom of expression across the continent and strongly condemned the high level of impunity for unwarranted assaults on journalists.


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