Independent Press Threatened in Many Southern African Countries Citing “Grave Concerns,” CPJ Calls on SADC To Consider Press Freedom Records Of Member States

August 3, 2000

President Joachim Alberto Chissano
Chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)
SADC Headquarters
Gaborone, Botswana

VIA FAX: +267 372 848

Your Excellency,

Ahead of the August 6-7 SADC Summit of Heads of State, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wishes to express its grave concern about the deplorable state of press freedom in several SADC member states. Our research shows an alarming pattern of governments interfering with the free flow of information and using harsh, outdated laws to prosecute journalists for their work.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the SADC’s newest members, currently holds the worst record of press freedom violations anywhere in Africa. Since President Laurent-Desiré Kabila seized power in May 1997, CPJ has documented more than 70 instances of illegal government interference with the circulation of news and ideas, involving more than 100 journalists who were harassed, arrested, beaten, or imprisoned without trial or any form of legal procedure. Security forces routinely raid newsrooms and even the private homes of journalists. The Kabila regime has often used “national security” to justify this systematic crackdown on the media.

The most notorious legal action against a journalist in the DRC was the grossly flawed military trial of Freddy Loseke Lisumbu la Yayenga, editor of the Kinshasa-based weekly La Libre Afrique. Loseke was arrested in December 1999 for reporting on an alleged Army-sponsored plot to overthrow President Kabila. Initially charged with “betrayal of the state in times of war,” a capital offence, Loseke was illegally detained for over four months in the most squalid conditions, deprived of food and medical treatment, and repeatedly tortured. Members of his family, including his children, were also briefly detained. On May 19, the Court of Military Order held a summary trial, found Loseke guilty of “insulting the army,” and sentenced him to three years in prison.

In Zambia, a founding member of the SADC, several repressive acts and statutes remain in place despite repeated promises by the government to reform its media laws. According to the government-backed Media Reform Committee there are currently 26 Zambian laws, including the pre-Independence 1969 State Security Act, that are inimical to the exercise of independent journalism. One provision in the Penal Code, for example, effectively grants the President blanket powers to ban publications. Other provisions prescribe harsh prison sentences for false reporting, insulting the President, defamation, and sedition.

Since last year, 11 journalists from the Lusaka-based independent daily The Post have been on trial for alleged espionage under the State Security Act. The charges were leveled in response to a March 9, 1999, article reporting allegations that Zambia could not withstand a military attack by Angola.

In Zimbabwe, also a SADC founding member, several harsh press laws remain on the books and others are in the works, despite repeated protests by CPJ and other press freedom groups. On March 8, for example, parliament passed a new Post and Telecommunications Bill (PTB) with virtually no public debate. The bill, which currently awaits President Robert Mugabe’s signature, stipulates that persons convicted of distributing information that violates “state security” face two years’ imprisonment, a fine of Z$200,000 (approx. US$5,260), or both. In addition to the PTB, existing laws such as the Law and Order Maintenance Act and the Official Secrets Act flout international press-freedom norms. The Official Secrets Act, for example, makes the publication of information not authorized by the government a criminal offense punishable with prison terms. President Mugabe’s administration also continues to impose huge fines and prison sentences on journalists in retaliation for their work, particularly when they criticize the government.

The most egregious recent violation of press freedom in Zimbabwe was the case against Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka, two journalists with the Harare weekly The Standard who were jailed and tortured last year for reporting on an alleged military coup plot against President Mugabe. Choto and Chavunduka were charged in January, 1999, with publishing false information “likely to cause fear and despondency” under Section 50(2) of the Law and Order Maintenance Act of 1960. The two journalists were illegally detained and tortured while in custody. While these charges were recently dropped, the case is an enduring example of the Mugabe government’s hostility to independent journalism.

In war-plagued Angola, Article 5 of the 1991 Press Code (“Lei de Imprensa”) makes journalists subject to state security laws, while several other clauses prescribe lengthy prison terms for reporters accused of defaming government officials, particularly the head of state. The Angolan criminal justice system, which generally does the ruling MPLA party’s bidding, is currently prosecuting half a dozen journalists on charges ranging from “tarnishing the image of President Eduardo dos Santos” to violating state secrets under the notorious Law 7/78 (also known as the Law on Crimes Against State Security), a statute originally drafted to cover UNITA rebel activities.

While CPJ welcomes recent news that the Angolan government is trying to revise some of the 1991 Press Code’s more draconian provisions, we remain concerned that the prevailing state of emergency might still be invoked to justify suppressing independent reporting on the war and other matters of legitimate public interest. Since late 1998, when the collapse of the Lusaka Peace Agreement led to the resumption of armed battles, President dos Santos’s government has repeatedly warned of a crackdown on journalists who were allegedly “unpatriotic” or who “incited treason.”

On May 3, because of the Angolan government’s continued disregard for press freedom, CPJ named President dos Santos to its annual list of the world’s ten worst enemies of the press.
In the Kingdom of Swaziland, more than 80 journalists and media workers were forced out of work in early February by the abrupt closure of the Swazi Observer Group of newspapers. According to our research, the media group’s management closed down the papers in retaliation for the refusal by some editorial staff to reveal sources for two December 1999 articles on Swazi police activities. Today most of these journalists remain without work or compensation.

As Your Excellency is no doubt aware, a 1973 royal decree suspended Swaziland’s Constitution, leaving the country without legal press-freedom protections. And though a constitutional review process is currently underway, the press has been banned from covering its proceedings.

Lacking constitutional protection, journalists in Swaziland are routinely victims of legal harassment, especially when they cover issues relating to the monarchy. The ongoing trial of Bheki Makhubu, a former news editor for the private Times Sunday who has been charged with criminal defamation for describing Princess Liphovela as a “high school dropout,” is a glaring example of official hostility to press freedom. If convicted, Makhubu faces up to two years in prison without parole.

While the above-mentioned countries are the most egregious press-freedom violators in the SADC region, CPJ has also documented state harassment of independent reporters and news outlets in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Tanzania, and Namibia. Even in South Africa, which is widely considered to be a model for press freedom in the region, CPJ is concerned by the South African Human Rights Commission’s decision to call editors to testify on alleged racism in local media. Along with many South African journalists, we fear that this inquiry is designed to intimidate the press and to discourage critical reporting about the ruling party.

As an international organization of journalists dedicated to the global defense of press freedom, CPJ reminds Your Excellency that the SADC Lusaka Declaration of April 1980 identified the free flow of news and ideas among the main priorities for regional development. The SADC Treaty of August 17, 1992, also commits member states to the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights.

In light of SADC’s declared intention to honor, respect and enforce human rights, CPJ urges you to consider the press- freedom records of member states in determining whether a particular country should remain a member in good standing. We also call on the SADC Summit of Heads of State or Government to publicly reiterate the organization’s commitment to freedom of expression and the press.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director