COVID-19 and the access to information conundrum in AfricaPosted: 10 April, 2020
Author: Hlengiwe Dube
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
As the world grapples with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the disease caused by the novel Corona-virus, Africa has not been spared. Although the rate of infection is still lower than the rest of the world, it is rising steadily. Governments across the world have initiated partial or nationwide crisis management measures including curfews, lockdowns, contact tracing, surveillance and testing to curb the spread of the virus, which has been coined as measures to ‘flatten the curve’. For these government-initiated emergency measures to be effective in curbing the spread of the virus, the public must comply with the government regulations. Access to information becomes very essential for the realisation of this objective and by extension other equally essential goals such as achieving the human right to health.
Meaningful public participation in these government measures can be achieved if the public is adequately informed. The right of access to information is a fundamental right that is guaranteed in human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). Almost all of the 55 African countries have signed and ratified at least one of these instruments giving the right of access to information a force of law in their jurisdiction. Where it is undeniably necessary to withhold disclosure of information, such non-disclosure should be prescribed by law; necessary and proportionate and serve a legitimate aim. If there is a gap in the provision of credible information, there is a high probability that the credible information void will be filled with false information, hence the need for authorities and relevant stakeholders to adopt robust communication strategies underpinned by the principle of proactive disclosure. The intensity and severity of COVID-19, makes credible information necessary and urgent.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has affirmed that information accessibility is an essential element to the right to health. It is therefore pertinent for states to ensure there are measures in place to facilitate access to and dissemination of COVID-19 related information timeously, without discrimination, and in accessible formats and technologies. Accessing timely and relevant information such as public health guidelines and education on the COVID-19 pandemic is critical in enhancing people’s knowledge about the preventive measures and what the government expects from the public. The availability of such information could positively influence the behaviour of the public in reducing the spread of the virus and ultimately its containment. For instance, the COVID-19 preventive narrative is described in uncommon terms such as ‘quarantine’, ‘self-quarantine’, ‘social-distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, ‘flatten the curve’. The expectation is that people make relevant behavioural changes to complement national and local efforts in slowing the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, without access to timely, accessible and adequate information, these terms will remain abstract, foreign and distant to many people especially those who are vulnerable due to existing inequalities in literacy and poverty.
Only 21 of the 55 African countries have adopted access to information laws. However, the existence of these laws is not backed by effective implementation including the establishment of independent oversight mechanisms. Access to information legislation, as conceptualised in the Model Law on Access to Information for Africa, is intended to promote proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies and relevant public bodies to enable meaningful public participation and enjoyment of other human rights. Also, the lackadaisical attitude towards commitments to information disclosure is reflected in the few numbers of African countries (only 13) that have signed up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) whose objectives include promoting accountability, transparency and openness. Further, the culture of secrecy exacerbates the deeply entrenched scourge of corruption in Africa. This is also worsened by the inadequate safeguards that protect whistle-blowers. Notable repressive measures are being applied in different countries against COVID-19 whistle-blowers including threats and suspension from work. A Kenyan airways employee was suspended for exposing the lack of diligence in handling of passengers from China at a time when China was the epicentre for the corona virus. Whistle-blowers publicise information exposing deficiencies in and other non-state actors’ preparedness in tackling the pandemic, specifically, the availability of funding, state of health facilities and protection of those serving on the frontline. It is therefore expected that governments would provide adequate protection to those who release information on wrongdoing or expose a serious threat to health, whose disclosure is in the public interest in the context of this COVID-19 crisis.
Access to internet and access to information
Internet has remarkably revolutionised access to information. Sustainable Development Goal 9 seeks, among other targets, to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020s”. Unfortunately for Africa, investment in information technology (IT) systems is still at its formative stages and internet access is still not universal although “impressive progress has been made in mobile connectivity”. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ‘more than 4 billion people still do not have access to the Internet; 90 percent of them are in the developing world’ including Africa. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights revised in 2019 requires states to recognise that universal, equitable, affordable and meaningful access to the internet is necessary as it facilitates access to information. Therefore, the Declaration places an obligation on states to provide universal, equitable, affordable and meaningful access to the internet without discrimination. In Africa, where internet is available, the public bear the brunt of exorbitant data costs. The cost of 1G data in Zimbabwe is $75.20. Countries such as Equatorial Guinea ($65.83), Saint Helena ($55.47) and Djibouti ($37.92) also have some of the highest cost of data in Africa. Another barrier to internet access is internet taxes. Uganda introduced the social media tax of $0.05 per day in 2018. The tax reduced the number of internet users and the extent to which the public use social media platforms.
With regards to data costs and internet access, South Africa ‘s initiative is worth emulating by other African countries. COVID-19 specific information is available to the public through an official website that is accessible at no cost. Access to affordable and quality internet has never been more important than at this time of the COVID-19 crisis. The aforementioned complexities, coupled with the glaring digital divide, digital exclusion, digital illiteracy and the incessant electricity challenge compromise access to internet and the use of digital devices for the purposes of accessing and disseminating information.
Vulnerable groups: persons with disabilities, women, children and older persons
Persons with disabilities (PWDs) face multiple barriers in access to information especially those who are visually impaired, deaf, autistic and those with intellectual disabilities. When traditionally written or verbal communications are the only forms of communication available, they can be completely inaccessible to PWDs depending on type of disability. In the COVID-19 pandemic, access to information for PWDs is a challenge due to the high cost of suitable ICTs, digital illiteracy among PWDs, and lack of policies which foster availability of accessible ICTs. To address some of these structural and potentially discriminatory laws and practices, article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires states to adopt such measures as providing information intended for the general public to PWDs in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost; and accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, braille, and augmentative and alternative communication. Private entities that provide services to the general public including through the internet are equally urged to provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for PWDs.
Pandemics such the COVID-19 disproportionately affect women and girls. They most likely take up the care-giving role in the family and this potentially disproportionately exposes them more to the virus than others. It is thus important that women and girls get information on how to care for their loved ones without increasing the risk of getting infected. Also, the lockdown measures may pose additional dangers to women and children who are in abusive relationships and abusive family settings. The proximity with abusers could field domestic violence and child abuse. It is therefore important for governments and other stakeholders to make information on safety measures for victims of abuse available. Child-friendly information about CODIV-19 including preventive behaviour should be proactively disclosed and easily accessible to children.
Similarly, information needs of older persons is a necessity to enable families and communities to provide the necessary assistance that older persons require during this pandemic as they are more vulnerable to infection and have higher fatality compared to other age groups.
Socially excluded and geographically isolated communities
Whilst the digitally connected world shifted from in-person activities/meetings to virtual platforms, for most rural communities in Africa, such options are not available and still a distant goal. The majority of rural communities are not well positioned to access credible COVID-19-related information from government and health agencies that is being released routinely due to poor access to electricity, low mobile penetration and poor internet connectivity. Additionally, countries that have stringent regulations that make it difficult for community media to operate deprive communities of COVID-19 information, that they urgently need. Indigenous peoples are usually excluded from accessing information and there are concerns they may be discriminated against in public education on the COVID-19 pandemic due to language barriers. African governments are however required by the United Nations to provide culturally appropriate health-related information to indigenous communities. During this pandemic, it is prudent to develop information mechanisms that are inclusive and suited for indigenous peoples to enhance cooperation and build trust between them and public officials in order to strengthen the national emergency responses.
Misinformation and disinformation
There are genuine concerns about misinformation and disinformation concerning the pandemic as such practices could lead to catastrophic consequences including death. However, the move by some governments to criminalise publication of such information is perturbing. For example, in Zimbabwe, the Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 that the government adopted to regulate the national lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 criminalises the publication and communication of false news about public officers, officials or enforcement officers involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown regulations. This offence is punishable under the Criminal Law Code by a fine or twenty-year prison term. Similarly, in South Africa, the Disaster Management Act criminalises publication of false information and the offence is punishable by a fine or six-month imprisonment or both. Depending on the different contexts, the standard of truth could be subjective and easily manipulated. The current criminalisation of fake news publications could slide back criminal defamation that some countries have abolished. . Steps should also be taken to discourage the public from disseminating misinformation and disinformation and raise awareness of its repercussions in this fragile context.
In this critical global health crisis governments and other relevant stakeholders should purposefully and vigilantly provide easily accessible information on COVID-19, including mode of infection, symptoms and preventive measure, the government’s crisis management measures and safety measures for victims of abuse. This information should be available in all national languages and accessible in various platforms and in formats that are accessible to PWDs. Information dissemination should include educative programmes and strategies that enhance the understanding of COVID-19 without complicating or toning-down the devastating nature of the pandemic. In this regard, governments should make reference to and encourage stakeholders to use the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to ensure credibility of information and potentially control the information disorder that has proliferated in this crisis.
About the Author:
Hlengiwe Dube is a PhD candidate and Project Coordinator of the Centre for Human Rights’ Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit. She holds an MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.