Over 80 media and human rights organisations are urging African leaders to release jailed reporters in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The African Union (AU) chairperson and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres and World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus were cc’d in the email.
Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir Mayardit feature on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Predators gallery as leaders who use their power to create hostile media environments in their countries.
“At this time of unprecedented crisis, it is essential to speak with one single voice on a topic as important as the imprisoned journalists in the world. Freedom of information is absolutely key in the fight against COVID-19,” said Arnaud Froger who heads the Africa Desk at RSF, one of the organisations which cosigned the letter to African heads of states.
The African Editors Forum also cosigned the letter and chairperson Jovial Rantao said media freedom and the free flow of news and information is more important now than ever before.
“It is a matter of life and death. Governments must desist from using emergency regulations, promulgated to stop the spread of [the] coronavirus, as an excuse to harass and suppress the media,” Rantao said.
“We reiterate our call for the release of the many journalists and editors who are languishing in jails across the continent, simply for doing their work,” he added.
The letter follows CPJ’s open letter sent out to world leaders on March 30 pushing for the immediate release of reporters jailed for their work.
“Given that a staggering number of these imprisoned journalists are held in jails across the African continent, we are reiterating that call to your respective countries at this time of grave public health concern,” the letter to African leaders said.
At least 73 African journalists were behind bars on December 1, according to CPJ’s 2019 annual global survey.
Egypt was Africa’s worst 2019 jailer of journalists, with 26 reporters behind bars that year. Apart from Egypt, the letter to African heads of states noted the 16 reporters jailed in Eritrea, the seven in Cameroon, the four each in Rwanda, Burundi, and Morocco, the three in Algeria, and the one each in Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.
“In times like this, journalism plays an important role in exposing especially human rights violations and abuses. In such a critical time, imprisoning journalists would mean infringing the right to access to information,” said Mesud Gebeyehu, the executive director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Rights Organizations which cosigned the letter.
“Journalists also complement the works of governments. In addition to this, journalists are also human rights defenders and have human rights as any person,” said Gebeyehu.
The letter said that as of March 31, at least 11 of these journalists have been released from jails in Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, DRC, Algeria, Comoros, South Sudan, and Egypt.
“However, at least six more journalists and media workers have been jailed since December 1, and remain in prison as of March 31, including four in Ethiopia and one each in Cameroon and Algeria,” it added.
Rantao said African governments need to “recommit” themselves to the Windhoek Declaration and the Declaration of Table Mountain.
“Both declarations condemned, in the strongest terms, all forms of repression,” he said.
The letter highlighted the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Right which mentions, “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health.”
It also noted that these rights were extended to prisoners and detainees when the African Commission adopted the 1995 Resolution on Prisons in Africa.
“We can argue that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for people living in promiscuity and overcrowded areas such as prison facilities. As journalists should not be jailed in the first place for acts committed in the course of their work, they should be among the first detainees to be released from prison. Way too many journalists are still jailed, especially in Africa,” Froger said.
The letter to the African heads of state noted WHO’s interim guidance on COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.
“Experience shows that prisons, jails and similar settings where people are gathered in close proximity may act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases within and beyond prisons,” the document said.
The letter said many journalists have been detained without trial for lengthy periods and are sick exacerbated by underlying health conditions and overcrowded prisons, where they have contracted malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases.
“No journalists should be jailed. Free and independent reporting has never been more important. If censorship can kill, journalists are on the contrary allies in this fight,” Froger said.
Read the letter to African leaders here.