Advocates for media freedom say nations in the Southern Africa Regional Bloc, SADC, are enacting restrictive cyber laws that have a chilling effect on journalism and freedom of expression.
In a hybrid forum on the state of internet regulations, Tabani Moyo, the director of Media Institute of Southern Africa, said his organization is worried about a trend toward less tolerance for journalists and dissent in the region.
He said the trend began last year, after a meeting of SADC leaders where heads of state resolved to take pre-emptive measures against what they called external interference, the impact of fake news and abuse of social media.
"In the wake of this resolution, we have seen a dangerous consensus towards crackdown of expression online," Moyo said. "A number of southern African countries moved with speed to come up with what they referred to as cybersecurity laws and frameworks. To us, [this is] somewhat problematic as the proposed pieces of legislation have serious chilling effect on expression, media freedom and right to privacy."
The effects have been most visible in Tanzania, where the Uhuru newspaper was suspended in August for publishing what authorities called a false story saying President Samia Suluhu Hassan would not run for office in 2025.
In September, Raia Mwema, a Swahili-language weekly, was suspended for 30 days for "repeatedly publishing false information and deliberate incitement."
Meanwhile, Zambia's government under former president Edgar Lungu used cyber laws to block social media, on the pretext the opposition was committing crimes with its posts on Twitter and Facebook.
SADC secretary Elias Mpedi Magosi – in a speech read by SADC director of infrastructure Rosemary Mapolao Mokoena – defended the move toward stronger internet laws.
"As more people get connected to access information, it attracts more cyber criminals to our shores," Mokoena said. "SADC has already commenced the process to review and modernize the SADC cyber space legal regulatory and institutional frameworks. … Misinformation being spread on the safety of 5G mobile networks risks has caused a negative risk on the ICT industry."
However, Namibia's Minister of Information and Communication Technology Peya Mushelenga called on countries to allow free expression online.
"Thus, it is incumbent upon all players – development partners, civil society organizations, government and intergovernmental organizations – to reinforce among each other in order to safeguard and enhance guarantees the full exercise of the right to information and freedom of expression both online and offline, with a particular focus on strengthening media diversity its independence, ability as well as transparency of digital platforms," Mushelenga said.
Zimbabwe's Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced this week the government had set up a cyber team to monitor what people send and receive, a move that is being condemned by many rights groups.