HomeOpinion & AnalysisShrinking democratic space in the name of Covid-19

Shrinking democratic space in the name of Covid-19

BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU

Governments around the world are imposing new restrictions on civic space in order to mitigate the threat and spread of the novel coronavirus or Covid-19. 

Some of these restrictions include enforcing lockdowns, imposing curfews, limitations on gatherings, mass surveillance, restrictions on media, reduced powers of legislative and judicial bodies, military deployments, and a variety of other measures. 

While many of these restrictions are founded on sincere and scientifically supported efforts to curtail the pandemic, others extend beyond the scope of medical justification and in a way provide grounds to shrink democratic space under the guise of mitigating Covid-19. 

Some of the measures encourage human rights abuses, and are likely to remain in effect even after the pandemic has subsided. 

Historical evidence has demonstrated that regimes have frequently used social crises to advance restrictive measures that would otherwise be difficult to pass in ordinary circumstances.  And, not surprisingly, these measures disproportionately harm the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society.

There have been common threads within the Sadc countries that could potentially be problematic during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

Challenges have been ranging around how these governments are enforcing regulations using means that do not promote a culture of accountability and in a way weaken democratic institutions. 

For instance, most of the measures that southern African governments have implemented in combating the spread of Covid-19 have been underpinned by statutory regulations. 

These regulations have been put in place by the executive arm of government with minimum, if any consultation with the legislature and other local government structures. 

Of the countries that enforced lockdowns in southern Africa, it is only in Malawi where the decision to implement a lockdown was challenged and successfully overturned by the Supreme Court. 

In all the other countries the lockdown regulations are being implemented with periodic amendments that are both proposed and enforced by the executive arm of government. 

While the immediate reasoning around the urgency in enforcing measures are the obvious health reasons, entrenching executive powers without accountability is a recipe for disaster.

Southern Africa has already been experiencing cross-cutting challenges around the regulations themselves, how they are being implemented and their enforcement thereof. 

For example, countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho have experienced increases in various violations against the media. 

At the time of writing this article, Zimbabwe had experienced in excess of 16 cases of arbitrary arrests, harrassment and detentions of journalists, while Zambia had a private television station shut down for being critical of government. 

There were cases of journalist abductions in Mozambique while there have been persistent threats against journalists in Lesotho. 

The challenges around the safety and security of citizens and journalists have largely been a result of either unclear provisions within the statutory instruments or heavy-handed approach in the enforcement of the lockdown regulations. 

Most countries in the southern Africa region have deployed the command element of the security forces to assist the police in enforcing the lockdown regulations and that has also in a way contributed to the increased cases of violations against citizen rights.      

In terms of citizen rights to freedom of expression, there has been a challenge pertaining to certain provisions within the statutory instruments used to enforce the national lockdowns, which by and large exceed the minimum democratic standards for restrictions on citizens freedoms, particularly online. 

South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia are among the countries with excessive punitive measures for the spread of fake news or disinformation. 

The provisions are however ambiguous and open to the interpretation of state security agents, thereby instilling fear among citizens. 

Enforcing such ambiguous regulations is against the letter and spirit of the recently adopted African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which are categorical on the need for restrictions on internet freedoms to be reasonable and clearly laid out. 

It is prudent that by enforcing punitive measures, the offence should be defined and the arbiter of truthful information identified at law.

Media freedom is also at stake, with serious sustainability challenges gripping the journalistic and information sectors. 

This has resulted in the crippling of the media industry’s operations, with some huge media organisations across the southern Africa having to shut down. 

The print media, which is dominated by some critical and independent players have shut down operations completely due to the declining advertising revenue and absence of sales due to the lockdown regulations.

There is every reason for governments within the region to be concerned by the shrinking operations of the media sector. 

Not only is the survival of the media industry critical for citizens to be informed particularly during this Covid-19 pandemic period, but the sector is essential in the enjoyment of citizens rights to freedom of expression and access to information. 

As such, media freedom should not be understood in the context of sustainability and business but in terms of  human rights. 

It is therefore prudent for state and non-state regional actors to coalesce and coordinate interventions in defending citizens rights in the face of the global pandemic. 

There will be need to provide thought leadership and investment in research and constant reflection on what policies would strike the balance between the need to combat the deadly virus while enhancing citizens’ freedoms.

l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the programmes manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ).  He can be contacted on njnya2@gmail.com, or +263 772 501 557. This article was first published by The Accent, a MAZ initiative

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