COVID-19 Response in Africa: Together for reliable information

About

Journalists play a vital role in ensuring the rights of access to information. This role is even more important in the context of a pandemic, where open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19. 

The COVID-19 Response in Africa project documents the risks faced by journalists during the pandemic, and provides essential, timely support and resource materials to independent media and journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa to help them fulfill their role of providing quality and reliable information about the pandemic.

ARTICLE 19 has been engaging in various advocacy activities that seek to preserve the rights of freedom of expression and access to information at the national, regional, multilateral and global levels. These activities are grounded in sound research and monitoring of attacks against journalist, legal analysis and monitoring of policies that impact press freedom.

Where?

Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.

Freedom of Expression and press freedom violations during the COVID-19 pandemic

This project is limited to the legal and policy changes and human rights violations against journalists in the context of COVID-19. Only cases that fit the following categories are included: 

  • The legislation in question is linked to COVID-19 and impacts on freedom of expression;
  • The incident in question relates to a journalist;
  • The incident in question is motivated by the journalist’s work; and
  • The incident in question is a violation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human rights violations are acts or omissions performed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State which fail to respect the rights of individuals. These include acts such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as excessive and unnecessary use of force by agents of the state. Violations may also come about as a result of the state failing to prevent others from depriving individuals of their rights or to remedy such deprivation of rights (including through investigating, providing information and holding those responsible to account through a trial).

During the pandemic, journalists have been beaten by the police, arbitrary arrested and/or detained and had other rights violated. ARTICLE 19 has documented cases of such violations in the target countries. The organisation has also developed a glossary of terms to enable better understanding of the violations journalists have experienced.

Glossary

(click each heading to reveal definitions)

Briefings

(click the image to open the briefing document)

Legal standards / Q&As

International human rights law

The right to freedom of expression

The right to freedom of expression is protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter). The UN Human Rights Committee, the treaty body of independent experts monitoring states’ compliance with the ICCPR, developed General Comment No. 34 which expands on the meaning of the right to freedom of expression.  The African Commission also developed the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which explains the right to freedom of expression in the African Charter.  

The scope of the right to freedom of expression is broad. It requires states to guarantee to all people the freedom to seek, receive, or impart information or ideas of any kind, regardless of frontiers, through any media of a person’s choice, either orally, in writing, or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice. 

The UN Human Rights Committee has affirmed that the scope of the right extends to the expression of opinions and ideas that others may find deeply offensive. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) affirmed that states have an obligation to ‘facilitate the rights to freedom of expression and access to information online and the means necessary to exercise these rights’.

While the right to freedom of expression is fundamental, it is not absolute. A state may, exceptionally, limit the right under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR, provided that the limitation is:

  • Provided for by law: Any law or regulation must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable individuals to regulate their conduct accordingly;
  • In pursuit of a legitimate aim: Listed exhaustively as respect of the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or the protection of public health or morals; and
  • Necessary and proportionate in a democratic society: If a less intrusive measure can achieve the same purpose as a more restrictive one, the least restrictive measure must be applied.

Article 9(2) of the African Charter also reiterates that the right to express and disseminate opinions must be ‘within the law’. In addition, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa also provides the requirement for any laws suppressing expression to be legitimate, necessary, and proportionate.

Thus, any limitation imposed by the state on the right to freedom of expression must conform to the strict requirements of this three-part test. Furthermore, Article 20(2) of the ICCPR provides that any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence must be prohibited by law.

The safety of journalists

The UDHR, ICCPR and African Charter do not specifically refer to journalists. However, a number of international standards highlight the importance of protecting journalists in relation to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. These include the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 34  and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.  The Human Rights Council Resolutions on the Safety of Journalists is another relevant framework. The last resolution,  45/18 of 2020, calls upon states to (among other things) develop and implement strategies for combating impunity for attacks and violence against journalists, including by ‘creating special investigative units or independent commissions, appointing a specialized prosecutor, and adopting specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution’. 

The Human Rights Council acknowledged ‘the coronavirus disease crisis has significant implications for the work, health and safety of journalists and media workers’, and expressed deep concerns on how it ‘increases the vulnerability of journalists and weakens media sustainability, independence and pluralism and worsens the risk of the spreading of misinformation and disinformation by limiting access to a wide range of reliable information and opinions’.

National frameworks

The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under the constitutions of all ten countries. 

While the right to freedom of expression is fundamental, it is not absolute. Limitations on the right to freedom of expression are only permitted where expression propagates war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm. 

The right to freedom of expression may also be limited during a state of emergency but must always pass the three-part test of legality, necessity and proportionality. 

Scope and parameters [methodology]

Data collection

Our briefings relied on a review of secondary material, including emergency legislative and statutory instruments, information obtained through the monitoring of print and digital media, and statements from media watchdogs and journalists’ representative bodies. 

Data analysis

The data was analysed and structured along predetermined themes, including physical attacks and killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, threats and verbal attacks, restrictions in regulations, gender-based violations, suppression of access to information, and misinformation. 

Scope of violations included

Our briefings look at violations against journalists in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there may have been many violations against journalists, and violations in the context of COVID-19 against citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information, our briefings are limited to only human rights violations against journalists in the context of COVID-19. In this criteria, therefore, only cases fitting in the following categories are included: 

  • The incident in question relates to a journalist;
  • The incident in question is motivated by the journalist’s work; and
  • The incident in question is a violation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Limitations

The major limitation was that only violations that media houses and media bodies captured could be included in the briefings. This could have resulted in unverified cases being included. To mitigate this, the information from in-country media houses was cross-referenced against online and provincial publications, as well as international media. These were then cross-checked with reports from media representative bodies and legal bodies representing journalists, such as unions, to further verify the cases.

Useful Resources

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa 2019

Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda

Coronavirus: ARTICLE 19 briefing on tackling misinformation

Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Africa: Launch of position paper in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
07.09.2021 22 min read

Africa: Launch of position paper in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Kenya: Covid-19 reporting guidelines for journalists
07.09.2021 22 min read

Kenya: Covid-19 reporting guidelines for journalists

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Ethiopia: Government should guarantee Internet access and access to information during coronavirus pandemic
07.09.2021 22 min read

Ethiopia: Government should guarantee Internet access and access to information during coronavirus pandemic

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Kenya and Nigeria: Digital rights organisations rebuke restrictions on the rights and freedoms during coronavirus using cyber crimes legislation
07.09.2021 22 min read

Kenya and Nigeria: Digital rights organisations rebuke restrictions on the rights and freedoms during coronavirus using cyber crimes legislation

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West Africa: more transparency, accountability and access to information needed amidst the coronavirus pandemic
07.09.2021 22 min read

West Africa: more transparency, accountability and access to information needed amidst the coronavirus pandemic

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Blog: The impact of Covid-19 on the right to protest in Kenya
07.09.2021 22 min read

Blog: The impact of Covid-19 on the right to protest in Kenya

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