Human rights and wrongs

A chaotic start to elections in Malawi

By Ozias Tungwarara | May 21st, 2014
Voting in Malawi got off to a chaotic start this morning due to lack of materials such as the voters’ roll, ballot papers, ink, pens, and ballot boxes.  This resulted in many polling centres opening late.  There have also been reports of rioting, burning of some polling stations and destruction of polling materials by frustrated voters.  Several polling stations had not opened by noon.  The capacity of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to manage the logistics had always been an area of concern.
 
The MEC was frantically printing the final voters’ roll yesterday afternoon.  It also emerged that ballot papers were in short supply especially for the local government elections.  This state of affairs confirmed the elections situation room analysis that had highlighted as a concern that insufficient attention was being paid to the local government component of the election.  The MEC hastily convened a stakeholder meeting to decide how to respond to the emerging challenges.  In the final analysis the MEC took the decision to proceed with the election.
 
Given that a majority of polling stations did not open on time, the MEC extended poll station closing time from 18:00 to 21:00.  Presiding officers were also allowed discretion to decide if polling should be extended beyond 21:00.  The immediate concern was whether adequate arrangements had been made regarding lighting if people are voting in the night. Whether there are enough ballot materials for those stations that are going to open late, remains an issue.
 
Judging by long queues that were being reported on by the election situation room observers deployed on the ground as well as other observers, it appears that there was large voter turn-out.  Earlier there were reports of disturbances that included burning down of polling stations, rioting, looting, and suspension of voting in some stations.  The disturbances were largely attributed to frustration by voters at polling stations opening late.
 
The situation room faced a number of challenges especially with transmission and the processing of data.  On Monday internet for most of the service providers slowed dramatically.  When the more than 4000 observers deployed by the situation room started transmitting data it became clear that the majority of them were not following the observer checklist but tended to be focusing on incidents.  The situation room task force was able to convene a press briefing during which they highlighted concern about the chaotic manner in which the election had proceeded.  They also then met with the MEC to convey these concerns.  Another press by the situation room task force briefing is planned for tomorrow.
 
Counting of the ballots is now underway.  Given the late closing of the polling stations, it’s not clear at this stage when vote counting will be completed.  While the pre-electoral environment was peaceful and citizens were able to exercise meaningful choice, the shambolic manner in which election day proceedings were conducted undermined the credibility of the electoral process.  Given that the electoral process remains too close to call, the critical issue is going to be whether contestants are going to accept the outcome.      
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Judge a country by the company it keeps

By Richard Lee | February 20th, 2014

Most people hear little about Zambia and so assume that all is well. But it’s not.  Things are very far from well. And they’re getting worse.

And to understand this all you need to do is glance at the 2013 Risk List produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which groups Zambia alongside the likes of Egypt, Liberia, Syria, Russia and Vietnam. It is not an enviable set of bedfellows.

It shows how far Zambia has fallen in the last year because this is not a list of the worst violators of press freedom but rather countries that have registered the most significant deterioration in the media environment over the past year. And there is no doubt that the CPJ’s conclusion that the space in Zambia for ‘free expression and independent newsgathering is rapidly shrinking’.

As is the space for democratic debate and civil society activism and dissenting voices.

But the narrowing of the media space in Zambia is particularly worrying since the Patriotic Front (PF) government promised a new era of freedom of expression. Indeed, both President Michael Sata and Vice-President Guy Scott had successfully used the press to boost their campaign to run the country – and most people (naively as it turned out) believed that they would give others the same opportunity.

Instead, as the CPJ makes clear, Zambia in 2013 was ‘marked by the continuous and public vilification of the press by authorities, and the systematic muzzling of journalists through the courts’.

And CPJ lists the main concerns from pressurising the state-owned press to self-censor more than ever, closing the small space that had opened open for independent journalists, and invoking repressive criminal defamation laws to intimidate journalists.

In particular, the government has ‘pursued independent journalists with a series of vague and spurious charges’, which are clearly intended to silence alternative voices and intimidate investigate reporters. And launched a concerted attack on the independent news website Zambia Reports. All of which illustrate that the authorities are prepared to use the full force of the law and the police to ensure that Zambians only get a diet of pro-PF news.

Obviously, the aim is to strengthen Sata’s grip on power and to help secure him a second term in office. But if his plan fails and the PF is defeated – you can bet your bottom kwacha that he and Guy Scott (and the rest of the PF leadership) will be the first to cry violation of their right to free expression when they find that they can no longer air their views so easily in the media.

It will, of course, serve them right. But it will not be only them who suffer. Every Zambian will lose out if this onslaught on press freedom in the country is not reversed.

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African Commission must leave Banjul

By Richard Lee | February 19th, 2014

Enough is enough! There are no more excuses left. It is time for the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights to pack its bags and leave Banjul – promising to return to its original home when President Yahya Jammeh is eventually removed from office.

Jammeh has given the ACHPR numerous reasons to leave in the past – since his dictatorial regime has trampled on every single human right that the Commission is sworn to uphold, including executing a group of prisoners in 2012. Staying in the Gambia gives the impression, year after year, that the commission – and indeed the continent – is not genuinely committed to protecting and promoting human rights, whatever rulings it makes.

But Jammeh’s latest outburst is surely a step too far? During a speech on state TV, Jammeh ranted – once again about homosexuals – but this time he took his usual homophobic hate speech to a whole new level with a clear public incitement to murder.

“We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” said Jammeh.

It might sound ludicrous – even funny in an utterly absurd way. But remember this is the president of a country essentially calling for people to be killed. Totally innocent people. People with the same rights as everyone else. People who simply happen to love someone of the same sex.

“As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence,” he added.

It is crystal clear that Jammeh is far more detrimental to human existence in the Gambia than anyone else, let alone gays and lesbians. It is also clear that leaving the ACHPR in the country has not contributed in any way to promoting or protecting human rights. So it should move - sending a signal that Jammeh’s violations of human rights have gone too far.

It is not a signal that Jammeh will take much notice of. Indeed, he will probably smile as he has been doing his utmost to get rid of the ACHRP for years. But it will at least give the Commission a credibility boost (which it sorely needs, especially as its next session is being hosted in Angola).

And maybe it will make the European Union think twice about its plans to double aid to the Gambia over the next seven years - and that is something that Jammeh would certainly notice.

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