HARARE – A new Human Rights Watch report chronicles how more than 20 African governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic to clamp down on freedom of the media. The report, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse,” finds that Zimbabwe’s government, long known for repressing dissent, is one of the worst offenders.
The report released Thursday says officials in Zimbabwe are cracking down on journalists, political opponents, health workers and others who criticize the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“In Zimbabwe, we have documented a number of incidences over the last year. And our report references three of those,” says Gerry Simpson, an associate director for crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch. “A journalist that was beaten at a checkpoint near a lockdown area. We documented how a journalist was detained for nine weeks for his COVID reporting between July and November at various stages last year, and finally we have noted how Zimbabwe introduced the Public Health Order Act in March which threatened up 20 years in prison for fake news on public health matters.”
Samuel Takawira, a journalist with an online media outlet in Zimbabwe called 263Chat, is one of two journalists arrested last year for interviewing three opposition activists who were reportedly tortured by state security agents.
“Our arrest served as a reminder to all other journalists, media people not to pursue the story,” he said. “Obviously, this was a ploy to silence people, this was a ploy by government to hinder its citizens from knowing the truth, what transpired to these ladies. No wonder why (in) their bail conditions,” he sai, they were not supposed to speak to the media.”
Elasto Mugwadi, the head of the government-affiliated Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, confirmed that his organization had received complaints of abuses raised in the HRW report.
“There were a few complaints when these issues were being applied; the robust approach in enforcement by the police. So generally excessive enforcement. This is a continuous process; we are not stopping monitoring, we are still carrying on,” he said.
Simpson of Human Rights Watch mentioned Uganda and Malawi as other countries where authorities have cracked down hard on journalists trying to cover the pandemic.
“For example, in Uganda where securities killed at least 54 protestors and injured 45 in November, while citing COVID-19 regulations saying the rallies they were attending were illegal and in Malawi, just a few weeks ago, in January this year at least seven police officers assaulted a journalist in the capital with pipes and sticks for several minutes after he asked for permission to photograph them enforcing COVID-19 regulations,” he said.
Human Rights Watch wants the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting later this month to commission a new report focusing on states’ compliance with their rights obligations in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly.