Before the Coronavirus pandemic, Independent journalist Kaka Touda from Niger was going about his business, publishing news reports about his country’s governance issues on his Facebook and Twitter pages, at his home in Niamey, Niger’s capital. Then, a complaint was filed by a local General Reference Hospital, which alleged that the journalist’s post on his socials on 4th March about a suspected COVID-19 case at the hospital posed a threat to public order. He was arrested on 5th March.
On 9th March Kaka Touda was presented before a public prosecutor, where he would be charged for “dissemination of data likely to disturb public order” contravening Niger’s cybercrimes law. This means that if he is found guilty, Kaka Touda could face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of five million West African Francs, according to the cybercrime law.
On 1st April 2020, three employees from the privately-owned Essawt El-Akhar daily newspaper were arrested and interrogated about a story the paper had run about the Covid-19 pandemic. In the article, the Pasteur Institute in Algiers- the main state facility dedicated to studying COVID-19 in the city- had published incorrect test results from patients with the virus. They were held for about two hours before being released without a charge.
On 2nd April, the three were charged with committing an “attack on national unity” through their work at the newspaper, an offence under the criminal code. If convicted, the three could each face up to 10 years in prison.
Stories like these are not uncommon in the African continent and some dictatorship regimes in the world. In Africa, there are 250 stories, just like the ones above. Journalists have been victims of human rights abuse and arrests because of their duty to inform and educate the public. According to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1369 journalists have died since 1992, 250 journalists were imprisoned in 2019, another 64 are missing worldwide and 6 journalists have been killed in 2020.
In a survey they conducted on 1st December 2019, CPJ realized that there were at least 73 journalists in prisons in Africa. As of 31st March, at least 11 of these journalists have been released from jails in Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, DRC, Algeria, Comoros, South Sudan, and Egypt. However, at least six more journalists and media workers have been jailed since 1st December and remain in prison as of 31st March, in Ethiopia, Cameroon and Algeria.
According to the World Health Organization, people deprived of their liberty and those living and working in enclosed environments, in their proximity are likely to be more vulnerable to the Covid-19 than the general population.
With this regard, we have joined the Committee to Protect Journalists and 81 other media, press freedom and human rights organizations in calling for African governments to release all imprisoned journalists amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In a petition dubbed #FreeThePress, an open letter was written to world leaders and specific African leaders who still have journalists imprisoned in their countries. They include President of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune, President of Benin Patrice Talon, President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Cameroon Paul Biya, President of Chad Idriss Deby, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of Morocco Saad-Eddine El Othmani and President of Rwanda Paul Kagame.
The letter emphasized the grave consequences that will affect the journalists during the pandemic as they have no control over their surroundings. There also have been great concerns that these journalists who have often been denied medical care and by virtue of being in overcrowded prisons for a long time, have contacted underlying conditions.
The release of journalists will not only give them a chance at a long and healthy life but will also protect the press and encourage the free flow of information at this time when access to information is literally saving millions of lives.