Today marks 30 years of Windhoek Declaration when journalists from across the African continent came together in Namibia and made a call for the respect of press freedom.
This was a landmark call by African journalists for the recognition of free flow of information and freedom of the media to independently carry out its functions for public good. The agenda set in Namibia in 1991 and recognised by UNESCO in 1993 remains relevant and fittingly in the 2021 theme – “Information as a Public Good.”
The role of information as a public good has never been more relevant since the global COVID-19 pandemic outbreak at the end of 2019. Zimbabwe recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020. Consequently, the government imposed a national lockdown which was strategically utilised by State security agents to clamp down on media freedoms and free flow of information. Journalists continue to be harassed, arrested and unnecessarily detained for exercising their function to disseminate information and exposing vices such as corruption and gross human rights violations. This year, seven attacks on journalists by state security agents have been recorded including the attempted shooting of journalist Frank Chikowore by prison officers at the Magistrate Courts in Harare. In 2020, fifty two cases of attacks on journalists by state security agents were recorded.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) whose membership includes the Media Monitors and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) condemn the continued prosecution and persecution of journalists epitomised by the various court cases around investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono. He was arrested for exposing a multi-million dollar tender for supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic that involved the first family and the now former health minister, Obadiah Moyo. Reports of journalists arrested for covering police brutality incidences during the lockdown have also been recorded. Curtailing the free flow of information hinders the potential to reach every Zimbabwean and contribute to awareness raising.
The importance of access to information and the awareness of the public seems to continuously evade government corridors. The Forum, MISA-Zimbabwe and Media Monitors among other civil society organisations had to engage in intense advocacy and lobby initiatives targeted at government to issue relevant information on its COVID-19 vaccinations plan. The authorities only reacted after rumours and myths had already been widespread leading to the current slow uptake on vaccines in Zimbabwe. This highlights the government’s failure to capitalise on free flow of information to engage and empower citizens.
As human rights defenders, we note the changed communication landscape with the widespread use of social media and other means of communication being viewed as a threat to government. Citizens have unfettered access to information and social media platforms for dissemination of the same. Instead of engaging citizens, the government has resolved to curtail these freedoms through use of hate speech, threats, intimidation and arrests.
The Forum, Media Monitors and MISA-Zimbabwe call on the government to abide by principles of the Windhoek Declaration which, have since evolved in the African Commission and Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR)’s Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and the African Charter on Broadcasting to;
- Use the potential of the internet and digital media while fully respecting civil liberties, including the rights of freedom of expression and privacy;
- Refrain from imposing illegitimate and abusive limits on free expression,
- Take prompt and effective action to assure the safety of journalists, bloggers, and all those who express themselves on digital media platforms, from intimidation, threats, physical attacks, and attempts against their lives.