Violence against the media, arrests of journalists, data subject rights violations and revocation of licenses. These are some of the ordeals SADC media face according to a new Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe report.

The ,Analysis of COVID-19 Regulations Vis-À-Vis Freedom Of Expression in the SADC Region report highlights that during the pandemic, governments across the world adopted crisis response mechanisms which included laws to contain the spread of the virus and ensure public health safety. These responses saw an introduction of national lockdowns, restrictions on movement and curfews which in some cases have negatively affected freedom of expression.

In the Southern African region, some governments imposed levels of restrictions on freedom of expression. While it is imperative that while emergency measures are adopted to reduce the spread of the virus, human rights should be respected, noted the report by Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe.

“As governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the threats on freedom of expression are worrisome as they undermine democracy which is underpinned on respect of civil and political rights including freedom of expression and access to information,” MISA said.

“Any restrictions on freedom of expression induced by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic (although not desirable) must be specific, time-bound and in the interest of public health,” said MISA.

Disinformation and social media

Rapid dissemination of false information, specifically about the origin, cure and prevention of COVID-19 through social media platforms resulted in governments criminalising the publication of false news. The regulations were similar across the sub-region and included sanctions in the form of fines and imprisonment.

Zimbabwean Parliament Member Ability Musavaya Gandawa said the cybersecurity bill in Zimbabwe was a response to what he called the “proliferation of false news” in the country.

Speaking during the MISA webinar, Gandawa said the effect of these false reports is a serious phenomenon.

“There needs to be knowledge about the bill pertaining to social media and cyberspace, the people need to be sensitised as they work in cyberspace what is expected of them. Civilians need to be engaged on what the false information laws mean for them as users of cyberspace and what is punishable and the fines,” he said.

The report revealed that false news laws have led to abuses by governments in countries like Mozambique where it is now illegal to publish COVID-19 information that goes against the position of the government.

In Zambia, Madagascar and Eswatini news media have been under pressure by their government’s for criticizing the pandemic response. For example in Zambia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) revoked the license of a private TV channel Prime TV after it refused to air public messages about coronavirus.

In that case, the authorities cited “the interest of public safety, security, peace and welfare” as motivation to cancel all programming from the station. Prior to the closure, Prime TV had been critical of the government stance on COVID-19.

“The criminalisation of disinformation is susceptible to abuse and tests the limits of free speech, which is unnecessary in a democratic society. When individuals enjoy the right of freedom of expression, they can criticise their governments and without fear of harsh punishments if it turns out that their criticism was not unjustified,” the report states.

Privacy International public policy officer Huda Hove highlighted the threats to freedom of expression, noting that people become vulnerable to government abuses through contact tracing technologies. Governments tap into the private communication of citizens all in the name of national security.

“It starts off with a specific function where, for instance, this technology is there to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and then we start to see the function of that technology slowly changing where the information collected by the ministry of health will be shared with security or even the police,” he said.

Violence against the media

Despite the classification of the media as an “essential service”, journalists have continued to face several challenges in carrying out their work. Researcher at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria a Hlengiwe Dube explained that in some countries, members of the media have been physically attacked.

Dube said states have the obligation to guarantee the safety of journalists and the media at large in terms of Principle 20 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access.

“The safety of journalists is a human rights principle that is enshrined in international law,” she said.

Hove said there were situations where violations have been perpetrated against members of the public and the media. These include the arrests of journalists and closure of media outlets for mainly criticising government responses to COVID- 19 by Southern Africa Development Community member states.

“We have seen cases where people have been brought into court and restricted on what they can say, governments have used these laws to target opponents and descend views,“ he said.

The report has also highlighted that the right of freedom of expression during a pandemic actually contributes to public health interests. However, Dube warned that controlling overflows of information could lead to restrictions and censorship. When this happens, it hampers freedom of expression.

“Although issues of disinformation and misinformation are genuine concerns, we should be able to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and that the media and freedom of expression facilitate the public’s right to know,” she said.

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