In Africa we are three months into our COVID-19 ‘experience’, during which time we have begrudgingly adjusted the pace of daily life to varying levels of national lockdowns. This has brought with it many things – both good and bad. What it has also given us, without our asking – is the time and space to deliberate issues more deeply.
The uncertainty about what the post-COVID-19 world will hold, has made us question many things – the path we are on both as individuals and nations, as well as the overall global direction. Mostly, we are slowly trying to reimagine our future, with the realisation – brought on by this pandemic – of our infinite connectedness.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd is a prime example of opportunity for deeper reflection. ‘We must and can do better’ is the clarion call that emanates from deep, painful reflections and discussions. And thus, the global consensus that systematic racism in the US and elsewhere in the world must end.
In our region this has sparked intense discussions on racism, racial injustice, xenophobia and their intersections with identity and power. In South Africa there has been renewed reflection on youth activism. In Namibia, the #GallowsMustFall Twitter campaign erupted, calling for the removal of a monument considered racist, insensitive and representing hatred for blackness. Public protests against racism, gender-based violence, and police brutality ensued in Namibia and elsewhere on the continent.
So, it is through this deeply reflective lens that I watched closely as the story of the Philippine news website Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa’s cyber-libel court verdict, made global headlines. Under normal, pre-Covid19 circumstances, I would possibly not have been as engaged.
I awoke to the breaking news report on Monday, June 15, on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), followed by news updates and opinion pieces on CNN, The Guardian (UK), Al Jazeera and the Washington Post detailing the outcome of the trial, its dire consequences for press freedom in the Philippines and for democracy in general. Statements from human rights and free expression organisations, experts and supporters proliferated on social media platforms.
In solidarity, I too, commented via Twitter - telling Maria Ressa and Rappler to “continue to fight the good fight” and punctuating my call with the hashtags #CourageON and #DefendPressFreedom. But here’s the conundrum…
What it says to us all, is that we are and should be compelled to act when we witness injustice. Whether or not it speaks directly to our lived experience.
Undeniably, we have to stand in solidarity with people like Ressa and late Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by the Saudi regime. We must shout from the rooftops when journalists’ lives are in danger or when they are prevented from doing their work – work that impacts directly on our democracies and our right to know. But we should also be consistent and shout with the same volume and vigour for all injustice, lest we become the perpetrators of injustice and inequality ourselves.
Why then has the outcry from the global free expression community for Cameroonian journalist Samuel Wazizi who was confirmed dead on June 5, nearly 300 days after his arrest in August 2019, been at a softer volume? Why are we not seeing the same outpouring of solidarity over his killing?
Wazizi was arrested ostensibly for coordinating logistics for separatist fighters – a charge which his family and colleagues vehemently deny. Wazizi, according to an army spokesperson, died shortly after his arrest in August 2019. The army rejects accusations of torture and the Cameroonian government has not indicated any intention to investigate the circumstances of Wazizi’s death. A subdued, diplomatically muted outcry from the global free expression community; cursory reports in local and international news media – and yet Wazizi has paid the highest price for his craft. Had we campaigned as vigorously for him as we are doing for Ressa, Wazizi might still be alive today. We’ll never know.
Similarly, Mozambican journalist Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco, who disappeared on April 7 this year in Palma town, in Cabo Delgado Province in northern Mozambique. He was said to have left work around 18h00 and soon thereafter sent a text message to a colleague saying he was surrounded by soldiers. Deafening silence from the military on his whereabouts, sporadic reports from the human rights and press freedom community and a painfully nondescript reaction from the public.
It is exhausting to enumerate the many stories of journalists in detention on the continent. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) there were 73 journalists in prisons in Africa by the end of 2019. That number has increased since then.
But as the global campaign in support of Ressa gains traction, it is of fundamental importance that the whole of Africa rises in solidarity, in principle, in the same way that I’d expect the rest of the world to stand with African journalists. If we are to confine our calls for justice based on people’s personalities, celebrity identities or their fame and gravitas on international platforms then we do a disservice to the fight for press freedom. Then we fuel the pervasive culture of impunity that surrounds violence against journalists.
With some African governments intensifying their assaults on the media under the cover of lockdowns and COVID-19, let us raise the volume for press freedom when and wherever these violations occur.
Zoé Titus is presently the Director of the Namibia Media Trust. She has dedicated the last 26 years of her life to advancing media freedom and development and has partnered with fesmedia Africa in her various positions and roles.