On this World Press Freedom Day, the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders) commemorates the critical role played by the media in promoting human rights, democracy, and good governance. The theme for this year’s celebration, “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all other human rights” highlights the importance of ensuring press freedom so that we can achieve other human rights. This theme has particular significance in Southern Africa, where fundamental freedoms such as expression, association and assembly are often under attack.
Press freedom is a fundamental human right enshrined in international and regional human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media. It is essential for the exercise of other human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to access information, and the right to participate in public affairs. It is also essential for the functioning of democracy, as it allows citizens to make informed decisions based on a diversity of perspectives and ideas
In Southern Africa, press freedom is often under threat from government repression, political interference, and media ownership concentration. We are deeply concerned about the growing trend of criminalization of journalism, where journalists and media practitioners are frequently subjected to harassment, intimidation, and violence, often with impunity. In some cases, governments have resorted to legal and administrative measures, such as restrictive laws and regulations, to limit media freedom and control the flow of information. In Zimbabwe, Hopewell Chin‘ono, a prominent journalist was arrested three times in six months for exposing government corruption through social media. In Mozambique in March 2021, journalist Ibraimo Mbaruco was abducted by unknown assailants in the Cabo Delgado province and he has not been seen or heard from since. This has a chilling effect on journalism and creates a culture of self-censorship.
As human rights defenders, we recognize the critical role played by the media in exposing human rights violations, holding those in power accountable, and amplifying the voices of marginalized and vulnerable communities. We also recognize that journalists and media practitioners are themselves human rights defenders who face unique risks and challenges in their work.
Therefore, we call on the authorities in Southern Africa to uphold their obligations to protect and promote press freedom and respect the rights of journalists and media practitioners. The authorities must ensure that laws and regulations governing the media are in line with international human rights standards.
We also call on media owners and managers to ensure that their outlets provide accurate, impartial, and independent reporting, without fear or favour. Media ownership concentration is a significant threat to press freedom in Southern Africa, as it often results in the dominance of a few large media conglomerates that prioritize profit over public interest. This can lead to biased and sensationalized reporting and the exclusion of voices that challenge the status quo.
We urge civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and regional and international bodies, such as the African Union and the United Nations, to prioritize press freedom and hold authorities accountable for violations of this fundamental right and defend press freedom. This includes advocating for the repeal of repressive media laws and regulations, supporting independent media outlets, and holding governments and media owners accountable for their actions.
Lastly, as we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, we reiterate our commitment to promoting and defending press freedom and the right to access information in Southern Africa. We stand in solidarity with journalists and media workers who continue to work under difficult and often dangerous conditions to keep us informed.