Standing witness to human rights defenders

  David Kode argues that in the future, it will be imperative to strengthen coalitions of civil society groups, the media and human rights defenders to act in solidarity. These coalitions will bring together groups working on environmental, land and indigenous rights, the rights of women, media rights, and the rights of LGBTI communities. As these coalitions ‘stand as their witness’, they will amplify the voices of those targeted by the state. It is a critical need, as the world – and Africa – strive for more ‘open’ societies.   

David Kode is head of Advocacy and Campaigns at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. It was established in 1993, and since 2002 has been proudly headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, with additional hubs across the globe. It is a membership alliance with more than 10 000 members in more than 175 countries.

The CIVICUS definition of civil society is broad, covering non-governmental organisations, activists, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and social movements, voluntary bodies, campaigning organisations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations. Its membership is diverse, spanning a wide range of issues, sizes and organisation types.

In what has now become a familiar pattern, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested – again, for the third term in a period of six months. 

This time the Zimbabwean authorities have accused him of peddling falsehoods. He was arrested previously in November 2020 on charges of ‘obstruction of justice’ and ‘demeaning Zimbabwe’s National Prosecuting Authority’, barely two months after he was released on bail following a previous arrest in July 2020. 

At the centre of the arrests and judicial persecution of Hopewell Chin’ono is his courageous investigative journalism; this new wave of persecution began after he reported on alleged corruption by Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry in the procurement of Covid-19 supplies. 

Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono at court in Harare, 13 January 2021. (Photo: Frank Chikowore)

The arrest and judicial persecution of Hopewell Chin’ono is symptomatic of the challenges faced by journalists and human rights defenders across the world. Seen in the context of civic space – defined as a set of universally accepted rules which allow people to organise, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance – a recent report by the CIVICUS Monitor reveals that only 3.4% of the world’s population live in countries rated ‘open’. An ‘open’ rating for civil society means citizens, journalists, human rights defenders and civil society groups are able to express their views on issues affecting the state without any form of reprisal from the authorities. 

In Africa specifically, the findings of the report highlight the fact that the detention of journalists is number one on the list of the top five human rights violations on the continent. From Burundi to Zimbabawe, Cameroon, Guinea and Uganda, authorities target human rights defenders and journalists for simply reporting on the excesses of the state, for highlighting corrupt practices and human rights violations. Once arrested, they are accused of the most serious charges available, including attempting to destabilise the state, colluding with foreign powers, terrorism, and attempting to foment an insurrection. Such charges often also carry the most serious penalties. 

What is the ‘Standasmywitness’ campaign? 

Often characterised by states as ‘criminals’, human rights defenders and journalists facing persecution are subjected to unfair judicial processes; and in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are exposed to adverse health conditions in prisons and detention centres. In many instances, subjecting them to these conditions, and to the might of the military and the state, means these brave human rights defenders are unable to speak for themselves while in detention. Some are denied contact with family and/or legal representation; while on occasion, some are denied access to medical assistance. Others are subjected to unfair legal processes, and even in detention, their rights are taken away from them. 

A Zimbabwean national, Hlevani Matikiti protests at the entrance to the University of Johannesburg during the funeral of the late Andrew Mlangeni and against the arrest of Zimbabwean journalists on July 29, 2020. (Photo: Fani Mahuntsi/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

It was as a result of this that global civil society alliance CIVICUS, together with more than 190 civil society organisations, launched the ‘Standasmywitness’ campaign in July 2020, to raise awareness regarding the state of human rights defenders who are subjected to judicial persecution and detention, and to advocate for their release.

The appellation ‘Standasmywitness’ is borrowed from the words of Said Zahari, a former editor-in-chief of Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu, himself a prisoner of conscience who was detained for 17 years without trial in Singapore; he called on those who had a voice to speak out, to ‘stand as his witness’.

The campaign was launched following consultations with representatives of civil society across the world, and was first publicised on 18 July, Nelson Mandela Day; because like the former South African President, who spent 27 years in jail, many human rights defenders are persecuted and jailed for standing for freedom, human rights and democratic values. 

The campaign presents an opportunity to forge coalitions, and highlights the significance of solidarity between groups working on civil society issues, human rights defenders, and the media. It sheds light on the detention of human rights defenders such as Germain Rukuki, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison by the Burundian authorities – following a deeply flawed judicial process – on trumped-up charges of rebellion and threatening state security. It advocates for the release of Cameroonian journalist Mancho Bibixy, who was arrested in January 2018 and later sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of terrorism, secession and inciting civil war, for speaking out against the human rights violations in Cameroon’s Anglophone communities. 

The campaign continues to advocate for an end to the persecution and detention of woman human rights defenders, activists working on environmental, land and indigenous rights, and journalists raising concerns about governance issues across the continent. Since it was launched in July 2020, the campaign has worked with civil society partners at national and regional level to successfully advocate for the release of human rights defenders and journalists in Niger and Burundi. 

The different ratings on the state of civic space in different countries in Africa are indicative of the human rights condition and the treatment of human rights defenders and journalists on the continent. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, of the 49 countries rated, six are rated as ‘closed’ – meaning any overt advocacy at national level by civil society or critical reporting by journalists is likely to lead to the arrest and detention of representatives of civil society, or forceful disappearance or even death at the hands of the authorities. 

Only two countries have an ‘open’ civic space rating, while 21 are rated ‘repressed’, six are rated ‘narrowed’ and 14 are rated ‘obstructed’. 

The map depicting the “openness” of African countries. (Source:

The targeting of human rights defenders and journalists increases during politically sensitive periods such as elections, or when constitutions are amended. Over the last several months, for example, the ‘Standasmywitness’ campaign has profiled human rights defenders from Niger, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, and from Uganda and Tanzania, as there was a marked increase in the targeting of civil society in these countries ahead of and during elections in 2020. 

Those who report on and advocate against corrupt practices, indigenous and environmental rights, the rights of women and LGBTI communities are often more susceptible to attack from both state and non-state actors. 

Looking ahead 

A major call from the campaign to African governments has been to release human rights defenders, journalists and activists in prison, as a means of decongesting prison populations and detention centres to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But since the start of the pandemic, several governments have used the pandemic itself as a pretext for targeting human rights defenders and journalists. Emergency measures imposed at the start of the pandemic to limit the movement of persons and enforce social distancing measures were often accompanied by the arrest of journalists and human rights defenders – for covering peaceful protests, and writing about state responses to the pandemic. 

As states navigate through the social and economic repercussions of the pandemic, it is anticipated that citizens will demand more action from governments to facilitate an inclusive post-Covid economic recovery process that will take into account the needs of excluded and marginalised groups. We are likely to see more scrutiny of government policies and actions, and more protests against rising inequality. This will trigger reprisals from authoritarian leaders, who will impose restrictions to silence journalists and human rights defenders and force them to self-censor.

It will be imperative to strengthen coalitions of civil society groups, the media and human rights defenders, to act in solidarity through campaigns such as ‘Standasmywitness’. Such coalitions will bring together groups working on environmental, land and indigenous rights, the rights of women, media rights and the rights of LGBTI communities. As these coalitions ‘stand as their witness’, they will amplify the voices of those targeted by the state, and engage in advocacy activities to secure their release from detention.

1 March 2021