In what has now become a familiar pattern, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested — again, for the third time in a period of six months.
This time, the Zimbabwean authorities accused him of peddling falsehoods. He was arrested previously in November 2020 on charges of “obstruction of justice” and “demeaning Zimbabwe’s National Prosecuting Authority,” barely two months after he was released on bail following a previous arrest in July 2020.
At the center of the arrests and judicial persecution of Hopewell Chin’ono is his courageous investigative journalism. This new wave of persecution began after he reported on alleged corruption by Zimbabwe’s health ministry in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies.
The arrest and judicial persecution of Hopewell Chin’ono is symptomatic of the challenges faced by journalists and human rights defenders across the world. Seen in the context of civic space — defined as a set of universally accepted rules which allow people to organize, participate, and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance — a recent report by the CIVICUS Monitor reveals that only 3.4% of the world’s population live in countries rated “open.” An “open” rating for civil society means citizens, journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society groups are able to express their views on issues affecting the state without any form of reprisal from the authorities.
In Africa specifically, the findings of the report highlight the fact that the detention of journalists is number one on the list of the top five human rights violations on the continent. From Burundi to Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Guinea, and Uganda, authorities target human rights defenders and journalists for simply reporting on the excesses of the state; for highlighting corrupt practices and human rights violations. Once arrested, they are accused of the most serious charges available, including attempting to destabilize the state, colluding with foreign powers, terrorism, and attempting to foment an insurrection. Such charges often also carry the most serious penalties.
The “StandAsMyWitness” Campaign
Often characterized by states as “criminals,” human rights defenders and journalists facing persecution are subjected to unfair judicial processes; and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are exposed to adverse health conditions in prisons and detention centers. In many instances, subjecting them to these conditions, and to the might of the military and the state, means these brave human rights defenders are unable to speak for themselves while in detention. Some are denied contact with family and/or legal representation; while on occasion, some are denied access to medical assistance. Others are subjected to unfair legal processes, and even in detention, their rights are taken away from them.
It was as a result of this that global civil society alliance CIVICUS, together with more than 190 civil society organizations, launched the #StandAsMyWitness campaign in July 2020, to raise awareness regarding the state of human rights defenders who are subjected to judicial persecution and detention, and to advocate for their release.
The appellation StandAsMyWitness is borrowed from the words of Said Zahari, a former editor-in-chief of Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu, himself a prisoner of conscience who was detained for 17 years without trial in Singapore; he called on those who had a voice to speak out; to “stand as his witness.”
The campaign was launched following consultations with representatives of civil society across the world, and was first publicized on July 18, Nelson Mandela Day because, like the former South African President who spent 27 years in jail, many human rights defenders are persecuted and jailed for standing for freedom, human rights, and democratic values.
The campaign presents an opportunity to forge coalitions and highlights the significance of solidarity between groups working on civil society issues, human rights defenders, and the media. It sheds light on the detention of human rights defenders such as Germain Rukuki, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison by the Burundian authorities — following a deeply flawed judicial process — on trumped-up charges of rebellion and threatening state security. It advocates for the release of Cameroonian journalist Mancho Bibixy, who was arrested in January 2018 and later sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of terrorism, secession, and inciting civil war, for speaking out against the human rights violations in Cameroon’s Anglophone communities.
The campaign continues to advocate for an end to the persecution and detention of female human rights defenders; activists working on environmental, land, and Indigenous rights; and journalists raising concerns about governance issues across the continent. Since it was launched in July 2020, the campaign has worked with civil society partners at national and regional level to successfully advocate for the release of human rights defenders and journalists in Niger and Burundi.
The different ratings on the state of civic space in different countries in Africa are indicative of the human rights condition and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists on the continent. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, of the 49 countries rated, six are rated as “closed” — meaning any overt advocacy at national level by civil society or critical reporting by journalists is likely to lead to the arrest and detention of representatives of civil society, or forceful disappearance or even death at the hands of the authorities.
Only two countries have an “open” civic space rating, while 21 are rated “repressed,” six are rated “narrowed,” and 14 are rated “obstructed.”
The targeting of human rights defenders and journalists increases during politically sensitive periods such as elections, or when constitutions are amended. Over the last several months, for example, the StandAsMyWitness campaign has profiled human rights defenders from Niger, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, and from Uganda and Tanzania, as there was a marked increase in the targeting of civil society in these countries ahead of and during elections in 2020.
Those who report on and advocate against corrupt practices, Indigenous and environmental rights, the rights of women and LGBTI communities are often more susceptible to attack from both state and non-state actors.
A major call from the campaign to African governments has been to release human rights defenders, journalists, and activists in prison, as a means of decongesting prison populations and detention centers to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But since the start of the pandemic, several governments have used the pandemic itself as a pretext for targeting human rights defenders and journalists. Emergency measures imposed at the start of the pandemic to limit the movement of persons and enforce social distancing measures were often accompanied by the arrest of journalists and human rights defenders — for covering peaceful protests, and writing about state responses to the pandemic.
As states navigate through the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic, it is anticipated that citizens will demand more action from governments to facilitate an inclusive post-COVID economic recovery process that will take into account the needs of excluded and marginalized groups. We are likely to see more scrutiny of government policies and actions, and more protests against rising inequality. This will trigger reprisals from authoritarian leaders, who will impose restrictions to silence journalists and human rights defenders, and force them to self-censor.
It will be imperative to strengthen coalitions of civil society groups, the media, and human rights defenders, to act in solidarity through campaigns such as StandAsMyWitness. Such coalitions will bring together groups working on environmental, land, and Indigenous rights; the rights of women, media, and LGBTI communities. As these coalitions “stand as their witness,” they will amplify the voices of those targeted by the state, and engage in advocacy activities to secure their release from detention.
This chapter is drawn from “People Power Truth: Human Rights, Civil Society, and the Media in sub-Saharan Africa,” which is published by the Fojo Media Institute. You can read the book here, and read the chapters online here. It is republished here with permission. Note: Fojo Media Institute is a donor to GIJN’s programs in Africa and Asia, and GIJN participates with Fojo and CIVICUS in the Consortium for Human Rights and Media in Africa (CHARM) to strengthen independent media in the region.
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David Kode is head of Advocacy and Campaigns at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Established in 1993, and now headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, it is a membership alliance with more than 10,000 members in more than 175 countries.