Africa: Roller Coaster Ride Around the Region - Releases, Abductions, Shutdowns and Awards in Sub-Saharan Africa

From Eskinder Nega's release, a landmark ECOWAS judgment and a legal challenge in support of LGBTQI+ rights, to internet shutdowns and the harassment of journalists, it was a month of emotional highs and lows in the region - we feature news from Ethiopia, The Gambia, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, DRC and Republic of Congo.

Reyhana Masters for IFEX Based on IFEX member reports from Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) , Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) , Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) , Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) , Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 8 March 2018

February was a month of emotional highs and lows - with Ethiopia topping the headlines. The roller coaster ride of emotions began with the release of over 700 prisoners and the eventual release of journalists Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye. In this sweeping show of reprieve, charges were dropped against three of the four Zone 9 bloggers. Events took a dramatic turn with the resignation of the Prime Minister and culminated with the announcement of a state of emergency.

Joy at the news that Nega and Taye would be granted amnesty along with the other prisoners soon turned into disappointment when the authorities backtracked on the release of journalist Eskinder Nega because he refused to sign a false confession stating he was a terrorist. Mounting pressure pushed the authorities to release both Nega and Woubshet Taye on Valentine's Day.

A prominent blogger and renowned journalist, Nega was arrested in 2011 and charged under the country's infamous Anti Terrorism Proclamation (ATP). In 2012 he was sentenced to 18 years on allegations of terrorism and incitement of violence. Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times, was also arrested in 2011, and sentenced to 14 years in jail under the ATP.

On the same day as they were being released, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation letter to Parliament, alluding to the civil unrest and the political crisis in the country which he mentioned could only be resolved by reforms. A few days later the Ethiopian Council of Ministers imposed a state of emergency which was endorsed by Parliament at the end of February.

Charges of inciting violence were dropped against two of the Zone 9 bloggers, Befekadu Haile and Natnael Felke, while charges against Atnafu Berhane remained in place, allegedly due to a court error.

The case of the Zone 9 bloggers dates back to 2014 when six members of the network were arrested. In a complicated and drawn out year-long battle, five of them were released and all charges were dropped. During an appeal process, the Ethiopian Supreme Court ruled that two bloggers from the Zone 9 collective, Feleke and Berhane previously acquitted of terrorism charges, should be tried instead on charges of inciting violence through their writing.

Another significant Valentine's Day gift was the landmark judgement delivered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. The Court ruled that the arrest and detention of four Gambian journalists amounted to violations of their rights to freedom of expression, liberty and freedom of movement.

The case of the four journalists who continue to live in exile - Fatou Camara, Fataou Jaw Manneh, Alhagie Jobe, and Lamin Fatty - was brought to the ECOWAS Court of Justice by the Federation of African Journalists.

The ECOWAS Court considered the "root" cause of the claims brought before it, namely the Gambian criminal laws on libel, sedition and false news. Subsequently, the Court called for the immediate repeal or amendment of legislation impacting negatively on media freedom.

Uganda had an unwelcome share of drama with the abduction of journalist Charles Etukuri by men in army camouflage as he left the New Vision offices where he worked. He was released a few days after Parliament asked the Ministry of Internal Affairs to explain his whereabouts. Days later, the host of a political radio programme, Richard Kasule aka Kamagu, was picked up by police for "irresponsible talk" on his popular show Simbula and released a day later.

On 22 February, the Human Rights for Journalists Network-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) reported a police officer's assault on journalist Nsimbi Posiano and the barring of other journalists from covering the trial of Muhammad Kirumira, the former Police Commander of a district in Eastern Uganda. HRNJ-Uganda issued a statement expressing concern at the continued attacks on the media by security agencies.

Just across the border, in Kenya, the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) - headed by lawyer and founder Eric Gitari - took a case before the Kenya High Court to challenge sections of the Penal Code. The NGLHRC represented by Paul Muite argued that specific clauses in the Code are in breach of the Constitution and deny basic rights by criminalising consensual same-sex relations between adults.

While it is not clear when a ruling will be passed, Gitari is hoping the case will gain traction, saying in a recent CNN article that "the judgment is going to give guidance to countries across Africa. It's going to encourage activists in so many African countries, it's going create a ripple effect."

The impact of policy formulated oceans away from the African continent was keenly felt by nurse Melvine Ouyo who works in Kibera, the largest overcrowded informal settlement in Kenya. She put the spotlight on Trump's Presidential Memorandum Regarding the Mexico City Policy by refusing to sign what is more popularly termed as Trump's gag rule.

In her story I won't sign Trump's global gag rule. Here's why, Ouyo explains how Trump's global gag rule will undermine the strides made by organisations working to support women and young girls who choose to have abortions out of necessity. "I am a medical professional. I took an oath to save lives. I provide comprehensive care. To allow a funder to dictate the services I can or cannot provide, would be malpractice. I would be accepting money to effectively commit suicide on behalf of the young girls and women I serve."

Legislation in Zimbabwe also took centre stage when the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology told Parliament that three Cyber Bills would be conflated into one. The minister said that, following guidance from the Attorney General's Office, the Cybersecurity and Cybercrimes Bill would now incorporate the draft Data Protection Bill and the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill. He justified the consolidation, saying all 3 bills - Data Protection, Cybersecurity, and Electronic Transactions - would prevent various forms of cybercrime.

MISA-Zimbabwe argues otherwise. "Grouping fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, access to information with consumer rights and cyber security into one piece of legislation, has the potential of undermining the protection of those rights."

Frustrated by frequent internet shutdowns, numerous activist organisations in the DRC are planning a series of actions against the mobile service providers operating in the country. The civil society organisations believe the internet service providers' obligations are to customers, and instead they are colluding with the State's politically motivated intention to disrupt internet services.

This was announced barely two weeks before authorities ordered a 12 hour shutdown of internet service in the country on 25 February as people took to the streets to protest President Joseph Kabila's refusal to stand down even though his term of office has ended.

As February came to an end, there was distressing news of the ailing health of newspaper editor Ghys Fortuné Bemba, who is in arbitrary detention in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) renewed its call for his immediate release, and holds the authorities responsible for his state of health.

According to a statement from RSF, "Bemba's health had deteriorated in his cell in Brazzaville's main prison to the point that he was taken in a critical condition to an intensive care unit in Brazzaville's Cogemo clinic on 22 January 2018. Although he did not really recover, he was forcibly returned to prison on 16 February in the absence of his lawyer and doctor."

A piece of good news as we get closer to celebrating International Womens' Day on 8 March was the announcement by Internet Without Borders of their nomination of two women, Fatou Camara and Malian Fatouma Harber, two high profile bloggers and freedom of expression advocates from Gambia, for the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for 2018.

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