The state of civic space globally and the environment for civil society continues to deteriorate. Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and civil society activists hold governments accountable for their actions, and demand compliance with human rights commitments in line with international standards. However, they face huge risks, and their advocacy can have dire consequences. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, 28% of the world’s population, approximately two billion people, are subject to extreme levels of repression.
The state of civic space in Africa mirrors that of the globe, as a vast majority of people also face significant restrictions in exercising their fundamental freedoms. While civic space restrictions tend to increase during politically-sensitive periods, including elections, protests, coups, emergencies and when constitutions are amended by states, HRDs and journalists, who report on human rights, corruption, conflict and health emergencies, are also susceptible to attacks.
Proliferation of Restrictive Legislation Used to Stifle Fundamental Freedoms
Despite the fact that a majority of African states are signatories to and/or have ratified key international and regional human rights frameworks, and have provisions in their constitutions that guarantee fundamental freedoms, many continue to promulgate laws that are at variance with their international human rights obligations. In passing these laws, many governments argue that they are aimed at responding to terrorist threats and disinformation, and protecting national security. However, they are mostly subjectively used to target human rights defenders, activists, media outlets and representatives of civil society who raise concerns about human rights issues, and report on themes considered sensitive.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the recently passed Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Law to regulate PVOs, has provisions that threaten the very existence of civil society organizations (CSOs). The law empowers the authorities to designate a PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse. PVOs who are deemed to fall into this category can have their registration revoked by the authorities, or their leadership removed or replaced. The law also prevents PVOs from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in presidential, parliamentary or local government elections. While the Zimbabwean authorities argue that the PVO is aimed at countering terrorism and other illicit crimes, the reality is that the timing of the passing of the law, just before presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, and the history of targeting civil society by the government, indicates that it is aimed at preventing civil society from reporting on intimidation and violence.
Similarly, in Algeria, the authorities have used the restrictive Law on Associations to refuse to register associations, or revoke their registration. Provisions in the law empower the authorities to reject the registration of associations if they are deemed to have objectives that are contrary to national values, good morals or public order. The law has been used to criminalize members of associations, impose restrictions on its funders, and suspend the activities of associations.
Authorities have dissolved two prominent human rights groups, the Ligue Algérienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme Rassemblement and Action Jeunesse (RAJ), and several media organizations, including Radio M and Maghreb Emergent, by using this law. Malawi, Angola and Mozambique have either drafted or promulgated similar laws in the recent past.
In the DRC, a Press Law and Digital Code promulgated in April 2023 empowers the authorities to prosecute and imprison journalists who are found guilty of spreading false news and sharing information electronically. The law states that the publication, dissemination or reproduction of false news is illegal if the information affects the morale of the army or hinders war efforts. According to the Digital Code, journalists found guilty of publishing false information could face six months in prison or a fine of 1 million CDF (approximately USD 419). Journalists could face two years in prison or a fine of 10 million CDF (approximately USD 4 190) for publishing information that, according to the authorities, seeks to coerce, intimidate, harass, provoke or encourage hate, or that affect good morals and patriotic values.
The passing of the laws raised concerns among media rights organizations as they will be used to subjectively prosecute journalists and bloggers, given the history of freedom of expression in the DRC Journalists face restrictions when accused by authorities of insulting them, or for reporting on conflict. In April 2023, journalist Gustave Bakuka who works for the privately-owned broadcaster, Radio Mushauri, was arrested by agents of the Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR) – the national intelligence agency – and accused of spreading false information after he distributed a piece he wrote about security issues on WhatsApp.
Similarly in Niger, the 2019 Cyber Crimes Law criminalizes the production and dissemination of data that is likely to disrupt public order, or undermine human dignity through an information system. The Nigerien authorities used the law to monitor Facebook and WhatsApp discussions of certain individuals prior to the arrests of activists in 2020. On 9 September 2021, journalists Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar were charged with defamation under the Cyber Crimes Law, after they shared a report authored by the Global Initiative Against Crime.
The Council of Ministers revised this law in April 2022. According to the amended version, defamation and insults through electronic information systems will not lead to custodial sentences but fines. The amended bill will not be presented to the National Assembly.
Intimidation of Members of Civil Society and Activists
According to the CIVICUS Monitor, intimidation was the most common civic space violation in Africa in 2022. State and non-state actors use intimidation to deter and discourage civil society representatives from raising concerns over issues affecting the state or individuals. It often occurs in different forms, including police summons for questioning, threats of persecution, house searches without warrants, break-ins, and raids on the homes and offices of HRDs, activists and journalists, and threats made online and offline. For example, in Sierra Leone on 7 February 2022, journalist and reporter Solomon Maada Joe was detained at a local police station in the city of Bo in the south of the country, after a business man accused him of threatening him over comments the journalist made during a weekly broadcast on Radio Bo KISS.
Mozambican journalist, Armando Nenane, has been subjected to acts of intimidation and harassment on several occasions. In 2022, he was given a live bullet by two unidentified individuals who informed him they were under the directive of their superiors, after the journalist was found not guilty of defamation – a charge which had been brought against him by a former Defense Minister. In October 2021, he was physically assaulted by several police officers while reporting on an accident. He was asked to delete photos of the accident from his phone. He was taken to a local police station and later released without being charged. States use this strategy to prevent the publication of sensitive reports by civil society or journalists, to force activists to self-censor, and to deter others from reporting on human rights to avoid reprisals.
Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly
As formal spaces for political participation continue to close in Africa, people are using protests as alternative ways to voice their opinion, express dissent and call for justice. Over the last few years, protests have been triggered by political, governance and economic issues including governments’ responses to increases in the prices of basic commodities, inflation and corruption. Some countries have seen protests against military juntas amidst calls for inclusive political transitions and democratic reforms. In most African countries where protests take place, the response of the state has been restrictive, with security forces using violence to disperse and deter protesters. Governments have also used policies and laws to pre-empt and prevent protests, making it difficult for people to mobilize, gather and demonstrate, while others have imposed blanket bans on protests.
In Chad, for example, security forces have repeatedly used violence to disperse protesters demonstrating against an extension of the term in office of the military transitional council, led by President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno since 20 April 2021. On 20 October 2022, known as “Black Thursday”, more than 50 people were killed, 300 injured and more than 1 100 others arrested as protesters demonstrated against a decision by the transitional authorities to extend the military transition by two years. Hundreds of protesters were subjected to mass trials and jailed. The Chadian authorities continued to arrest members of the political opposition and civil society including the social movement, Wakit Tama, forcing many to flee the country.
In Sudan, security forces use violence and rape to target women protesters. Following a military coup on 25 October 2021, more than 40 people were killed when protesters condemned the coup and called for a peaceful transition to civilian rule. Scores of protesters were forcefully removed, while hundreds were detained, with some subjected to physical assault.
In Eswatini, the authorities have employed several violent and restrictive strategies to prevent pro-democracy and anti-government protests that began in May 2021. As pro-democracy protests continue, many protesters have been killed. Those suspected of leading demonstrations, including school children, are subjected to physical assaults and imprisonment. The authorities use surveillance to target protesters and collect data on them to deny them access to government employment and services. Authorities have also imposed nationwide curfews and Internet blackouts to curtail protests. Pro-democracy activists have been brutally assassinated, with many others fleeing the country.
Attacks on Journalists and Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
The targeting of journalists has featured prominently as part of the top five violations or civic space restrictions highlighted by the CIVICUS Monitor for five years running. Journalists continue to be targeted for reporting on corruption, elections, human rights and other issues considered sensitive by the authorities. Journalists have also been subjected to judicial persecution and physical attacks for reporting on protests.
In Somalia and Somaliland, journalists are frequently detained and subjected to intimidation and threats. On 5 July 2022, police officers detained reporter, Mohamed Abdirahin Mohamed of RTN Television. According to Mohamed, the detention was related to an interview he conducted with an opposition member of the Southwest State Assembly, who had recently protested, along with other opposition legislators, against the revocation of their immunity and membership of the assembly. Mohamed was warned against broadcasting the interview or criticizing President Abdiaziz Hassan Mohamed.
In Nigeria, journalists continue to be arrested and prosecuted, particularly for alleged cybercrimes and defamation. On 19 August 2022, Agba Jalingo, publisher of online news site, RiverCrossWatch, was detained by police officers in Ogudu, Lagos State, following a defamation and cyberattack complaint filed by the sister-in-law of the Governor of Lagos State. The arrest, reportedly in response to a Facebook post, came only five months after a High Court in Calabar dismissed all charges against Jalingo – terrorism, treasonable felony and cybercrimes – but not before he was imprisoned for 179 days following the publication of a report alleging the diversion of public funds by the Governor of Rivers State.
In Ghana, the authorities have increasingly used ‘false news’ regulations under the Criminal Offences Act and the Electronic Communications Act to detain journalists. On 24 May 2022, for example, police briefly detained Noah Narh Dameh, who works for Radio Ada, in response to a petition by a company that was granted a controversial concession to mine salt, following a story on Facebook. He was later charged with publishing false news.
In the CAR, police arrested Christian Azoudaoua, editor of Le Charpentier newspaper, on 6 September 2022, reportedly on the orders of the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, following the publication of a report alleging the deputy speaker’s role in embezzlement. Azoudaoua was detained for several weeks.
In Malawi, journalist Gregory Gondwe was arrested in April 2022 following the publication of an article alleging corruption by the country’s Attorney-General. Gondwe was detained for six hours, with police pressuring him to reveal his sources, and his phone and laptop were confiscated.
How is Civil Society Pushing Back?
Despite the overwhelming restrictions listed above, civil society continues to brave the odds and push back against these actions by states. In many instances, they raise awareness at national and global level about violations by states. In some cases, states are forced to halt the restrictions while some of the responses from civil society lead to tangible change. Following decades of dictatorial rule in The Gambia, public mobilizations by the political opposition, civil society and activists defeated a climate of fear that had prevailed for decades, and contributed to the democratic transition Gambia experienced after the elections in 2016. From the “Calama” revolution, to the “Gambia has decided movements”, Gambians mobilized and voted out dictator Yahya Jammeh from power in December 2016.
In 2020, Malawi set a new record in Africa as the only country on the continent where election results were overturned and later won by the political opposition. After a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court citing widespread irregularities in the May 2019 elections, new elections organized in June 2020 were won by the opposition coalition, led by now President Lazarus Chakwera. The rulings by the Court demonstrated the kind of judicial independence not often seen on the continent. However, they were preceded and accompanied by mass mobilizations, protests and advocacy by CSOs across Malawi calling for a reorganization of elections, a reform of the electoral system and an end to human rights violations.
Similar changes, instigated by people power in response to the high prices of basic commodities and unbearable levels of inflation in Sudan, led to a political transition (though beset with severe challenges) in 2019, and the ousting of another authoritarian leader. In many countries where civic space restrictions continue unabated, including Djibouti, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and South Sudan, HRDs, journalists and civil society groups continue to advocate fearlessly for human rights despite the threats they face. The CIVICUS “Stand As My Witness Campaign”, launched on Nelson Mandela Day in 2020, continues to advocate with governments to free HRDs, activists and journalists imprisoned for their human rights activities.
Which Way Forward?
We are likely to see an increase in protests and mobilizations across the continent in the next few years due to socio-economic challenges that are exacerbated by increased prices of basic commodities and the fact that elections do not lead to expected political transitions. It would be crucial for formal CSOs to build better connections with social movements, less formal actors, youth movements and ordinary citizens who are likely to lead these demonstrations for change.
It will also be vital for civil society groups across the continent to build transnational support systems that provide crucial assistance and support across borders, as some of these protests will be violently repressed. The African Union and regional economic communities will also need to be alert and act swiftly to ensure that states across the continent respect regional human rights mechanisms related to unconstitutional changes in power, elections and human rights.
Originally published in African CSO Platform