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Free expression under assault in Uganda, freedom of assembly wins in South Africa, and fear a way of life for LGBTQI+ in Tanzania

International and regional outcry as Dar es Salaam regional commissioner specifically targets LGBTQI+ community, Angela Quintal and Muthoki Mumo of the Committee to Protect journalists detained, candid academic Dr. Stella Nyanzi arrested, Unwanted Witness takes Ugandan government to court, Zambian human rights defenders targeted, and South Africa's Constitutional Court issues landmark judgement.

South African members of the LGBTQI community protest Tanzania's treatment of the community, outside the Tanzania High Commission in Pretoria, 26 November 2018
South African members of the LGBTQI community protest Tanzania's treatment of the community, outside the Tanzania High Commission in Pretoria, 26 November 2018

PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images

Constantly living in fear is becoming a way of life for LGBTQI+ people in Tanzania since President John Magufuli came into power. Homophobic sentiments fuelled by President Magufuli himself have been steadily and increasingly transformed into violent actions against the LGBTQI+ community.

Taking his cue from past rhetoric, the regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam Paul Makonda held a press conference at the end of October, during which he announced his plans to form an inter-agency task force comprising members of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, the police, and the media in order to identify and arrest LGBTQI+ people in the country.

Within 24 hours of the news hitting the streets, the Tanzanian government distanced itself from Makonda's announcement. Tanzania's foreign ministry said Makonda's actions represented his own views and not the official government position.

Exactly a week later Tanzania was back in the headlines - for yet another violation.

Human rights defenders and media advocacy organisations from the continent joined the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in condemning the Tanzanian government's detention of their Africa programme coordinator, Angela Quintal, and sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo.

Quintal and Mumo were initially questioned at their hotel and later taken to an unknown location where they were detained, questioned further, and had their passports temporarily confiscated. They were taken back to their hotel after several hours. During their detention, Quintal and Mumo's phones and computers were also seized. A bogus tweet claiming they had been released was sent from Quintal's personal Twitter account. During this time there were repeated attempts by the authorities to hack into Quintal's email.

The Tanzanian government accused the two of spying and claimed they had violated their visa conditions, which Quintal vehemently refutes in her op-ed in the Daily Maverick.

An upshot of the constriction of civic space, declining freedoms and the crackdown on LGBTQI+ people is the Danish government's decision to hold back a payment of 65 million Danish kroner [USD10 million] to the Tanzanian government. This decision came on the same day the World Bank pulled out of a planned USD300 million educational loan.


A win for freedom of assembly

South Africa's constitutional court has ruled against the Regulation of Gatherings Act which criminalises the right to protest without prior notice.

The constitutional challenge was brought in 2013 by 10 activists from the Social Justice Coalition who were arrested outside Cape Town's Civic Centre during a peaceful protest. It was only then that the law's notification requirements were highlighted, as this provision had hardly been adhered to or used to arrest protestors before.

In a landmark judgement citing international law, the court "concluded that criminal sanctions for protests that do not pose a danger to the public, are disproportionate and thus unconstitutional". In their analysis, the Open Society Justice Initiative emphasised the significance of the court's decision as a "step forward in protecting the right to freedom of assembly, not only in South Africa, but around the world - especially because the court references international law to support its conclusions".


Human rights defenders in the firing line in Zambia

In mid-November, Front Line Defenders released a well-structured and comprehensive report detailing Zambia's slippery downward slide into authoritarian rule.

Determined to stay in power, President Edgar Lungu is coming down hard on critical voices - political opponents, civil society organisations, activists, the media and human rights defenders. Since coming into power in 2016, President Lungu has overseen the suspension of licences of three private media outlets (this came just after the country's political opposition filed a Supreme Court appeal contesting the re-election of President Lungu), the closure of The Post - the largest privately-owned paper in Zambia on grounds of tax evasion, and tighter control of the national broadcaster.

Certain actions by President Lungu, such as the imposition of a national threatened state of emergency in response to arson attacks, the issuing of veiled threats to members of the judiciary, and the replacement of civil servants with party loyalists, has weakened legal frameworks as well as state institutions.

In the last two years, the legitimacy of human rights defenders (HRDs) has been challenged and they are having to contend with arrests, violent threats, intimidation, surveillance, and smear campaigns. The principal concern expressed by the HRDs is the muted and slow response by the regional and international community to the simmering crisis. The HRDs interviewed emphasized the fact that while the situation was not dire in terms of physical violence or large scale rounding up and imprisonment of activists, the largely unprecedent current crackdown on civil society should raise greater alarm.


Ugandan academic arrested again

Uganda had to deal with its fair share of condemnation in November, starting with the outcry after the arrest of feminist, academic and LGBTQI+ campaigner Dr. Stella Nyanzi, who was charged with cyber harassment, contrary to section 24 (1)(2)(a) of the Computer Misuse Act 2011, and offensive communication, contrary to section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act 2011. While friends and colleagues are working for her release, Dr. Nyanzi is intent on staying in prison so that she can teach inmates how to use Facebook. You can read more about her here.

An analytical article in Uganda's Daily Monitor indicates that the Computer Misuse Act, 2011, was written to protect ordinary users from online harassment but instead is being misused in retaliation against those critical of the president. The article quotes journalist and researcher Lydia Namubiru: "It's absurd that people keep being prosecuted for insulting [Mr] Museveni. A law that was written to protect ordinary users from online harassment is being abused to suck up to the most powerful citizen. Saying something unflattering about the President isn't harassment".


Internet shutdowns in Uganda challenged in court

A review of the lawsuit filed by Unwanted Witness challenging internet shutdowns in Uganda was adjourned to 25 February 2019. The case, which was supposed to have been heard on 8 November, was rescheduled because presiding judge Andrew Bashaija fell ill.

The hearing of this case has continually been extended since 2016, when Unwanted Witness first filed the petition following the internet shutdowns during the elections and the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni for his 5th term in office.

The Unwanted Witness petition contends that the shut-downs engineered by the state were a blatant violation of people's rights to access to information, enshrined in article 41 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution. The respondents named in the lawsuit include the Ugandan Communications Commission, the Attorney General, and the companies MTN Uganda, Airtel Uganda, Vodafone Uganda, AfriCell Uganda, Smart Telecom, Uganda Telecom, and K2 Telecom.


'Idle and disorderly' law challenged

Francis Tumwesige Ateenyi of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) has filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of sections 168(1)c and 168(1)d of the Penal Code Act. Ateenyi is challenging the terminology used in the two sections which is open to very broad interpretation, as it refers to "suspected person or reputed thief who has no visible means of subsistence and cannot give a good account of himself or herself; and every person wondering in or upon near any premises or in any road or highway." These specific sections, in what is dubbed as the "idle and disorderly law", are often used to target the poor and marginalised members of society.

A 2016 HRAPF report indicates that police normally carry out these arrests late at night, and it is usually "commercial sex workers, street dwellers, street children, drug users, beggars, hawkers, and LGBTQI+ people" who are targeted during these swoops.


Journalists under fire

Local and international media advocacy organisations expressed concern at personalised attacks against journalists by South African opposition leader of the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), Julius Malema.

Speaking to supporters outside the state capture commission of inquiry, he accused the journalists of protecting Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who had been testifying before the commission.

A day later one of the named journalists put out this tweet: Attempts by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) to meet with Malema and members of his party were shot down. Secretary general of the EFF, Godrich Gardee, informed Sanef that his "party's schedule was very tight and fully booked with pre-arranged meetings and activities up until the elections date". (The election is expected to take place in May 2019.)

Prior to that, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, EFF's national spokesperson, announced on at least two programmes on radio and national television that his party would be prepared to meet with Sanef.

Mozambican journalist and editor of the weekly newspaper Dossiers & Factos, Serodio Towo received 3 calls from an unknown number warning him to "watch out", "write a will" and that "he was being watched". He also received text messages threatening to kill him if he continued to write articles criticizing the government. Towo had recently published articles about the involvement of Mozambique's Labour Minister in alleged financial mismanagement at the National Institute for Social Security.

During the first week of November, a brown envelope was found at the offices of the South Buganda Journalists Association (SOBUJA) in the town of Masaka in south western Uganda. The envelope contained the names of 12 different journalists with the reasons why they should be killed. One of the journalists on the hit list - Tomusange Kayinja - said he was now even more worried about his life, since this threat came just months after an attempt on his life by gunmen during the night.

Well-known Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo was arrested for her story about a US missionary's death in one of the English-speaking trouble spot regions in Cameroon.

Owner of her own news website, head of English news and presenter at the privately owned Equinoxe television and radio station, Mefo was arrested on 7 November and then summoned before the national gendarmerie. According to an RSF report: "after being interrogated by police on suspicion of spreading false news and violating the cyber-crime law, she was taken before military tribunal prosecutor Jackson Ahanda Yemego, who ordered her to be placed in preventive detention."

She was released on 10 November, and two days later all charges were dropped.

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