The COVID 19 pandemic has heightened the responsibility of journalists to provide information to the public. Citizens depend on journalists for updates on the number of cases, precautionary measures and on how government monies are spent during this time. Journalists are also on the frontline and need some form of security. We had a conversation with the Coordinator of the Africa Program for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Angela Quintal, about some of the challenges journalists are facing and how they can be protected during this time.
CPJ has documented attempts by authorities in several countries to crack down on independent reporting and access to information in this period of the coronavirus pandemic, please tell us about that.
The first victim of the coronavirus has been the truth, the crisis has made it clearer than ever that citizens need reliable information as a matter of safety and public health. Standing up to the public’s right to accurate information and defending the journalist to provide it, is core to the committee to protect journalists’ mission. We have been tracking press freedom and access to information violations around the world since early March, when it became clear that the pandemic in all its forms was the global juice story and would be the story for a very long time. CPJ’s advocacy is based on our research, so wherever possible we have tried to document these violations.
In some countries, particularly authoritarian regimes, the reaction has been to blame the media or to use emergency measures as an excuse to affect freedom of expression. So, we have seen a range of threats to freedom of press including legal restrictions, criminalization of journalists, physical attacks, accusations that journalists have coronavirus, censorship and poor access to information.
How difficult is it covering COVID-19 in Africa? Any specific cases or countries of concern?
I think that throughout our continent reporting on coronavirus is a challenge, just as it is elsewhere in the world. Let’s not forget that journalists are putting themselves, their families and colleagues at risk simply by being in the field and covering the pandemic and making sure that citizens have credible and accurate information. So journalist safety is a priority and that includes ensuring that they are protected when they do their work. As you know, many newsrooms are under-resourced and many journalists are freelancers – they don’t have the resources to protect themselves while covering the story. Journalists have become victims of the coronavirus and several have died, just today I heard the news that a cameraman at a private TV station in my home country, South Africa had died. There are important resources we have made available to assist journalists and I encourage everyone to go to our website CPJ.org to see for themselves and arm themselves with the knowledge that will protect them and others. There are economic and financial challenges impacting the media that are threatening the future of media companies and journalists themselves. Several journalists have lost their jobs or have to accept salary cuts, publications are closing down, freelance journalists are no longer commissioned or paid. Frankly, it’s a bloodbath.
There’s all this conversation of a purported cure in Madagascar and another in Nigeria. Do these present specific threats to journalists?
I think that any cure for a pandemic or any other disease be it from countries like Madagascar or elsewhere in the world, presents a challenge for journalists when these claims are not verified. Journalists have to present the facts, which is why access to information is key. So, when reporting on purported cures, it would be prudent to be led by the experts or what the scientists say, as well as information from credible judged trials. What does the WHO and the African Union, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the various regional bodies collaborating say would be the guiding point as to whether a cure is something that should be taken as one or not.
What we really need to ask is whether our political and other leaders are creating false hope? Are they trying to control information, are they censoring, are they the ones guilty of this misinformation or are they trying to make a quick buck out of the suffering of so many? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered. We have seen how in the United states, the president himself has regarded particular drugs as wonder drugs and even worse. I think what journalists should guard against is to be used as a mouthpiece for their agenda. Journalists should be in a position to ask questions and speak to experts and convey accurate information about what experts have to say. Gambians have seen what happens when there is no press freedom and when leaders claim fraudulent cures with former president Yaya Jammeh and his so-called AIDs cure.