COVID-19 measures should not suppress media freedom

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

Governments should stop using the new coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on media freedom, says Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo.

“We are concerned that the spread of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa has been accompanied by acts of censorship and attacks on journalists,” Mumo said.

A Namibia Media Trust (NMT) statement supported by the ACTION Namibia Coalition highlights concerns about the increasing press censorship in southern Africa in light of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“These measures range from straightforward censorship and suppression being conducted by traditionally authoritarian governments, to broader emergency measures rushed through democratic parliaments without review that go far beyond the powers necessary for the pandemic,” said NMT director Zoe Titus in the statement.

Namibia has the freest press on the continent, according to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The southern African country ranks 23 out of 180 countries on the index.

However, the NMT statement said the Namibian government informed local media houses that only selected press would be allowed to cover the government’s regular media updates about COVID-19. This to enforce social distancing regulations in the country.

The Namibian government held a COVID-19 press conference on April 1 with state broadcaster Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the Namibia Press Agency, and free-to-air television station One Africa TV.

“All other media houses are being encouraged to get feed from the NBC and NamPresidency social media platforms,” Titus said.

Titus called the press briefing an act of censorship.

“Limits on the media risk not only harming freedom of expression but also hindering efforts to stop the spread of the virus by depriving the public and decision-makers of accurate and reliable information,” Titus said.

Nigeria also restricted access to its presidency as reported earlier by frayintermedia. This was after Abba Kyari, the chief-of-staff to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tested positive to COVID-19 last month.

“[They reaccredited] only “friendly” media from state and private media coverage rights to the presidency,” Premium Times publisher and CEO Dapo Olorunyomi said at the time.

Mumo said the censorship and the attack of journalists during the COVID-19 pandemic are often under the guise of tackling misinformation or maintaining public order in society.

Nigerien journalist Kaka Touda Mamane Goni was released from prison on March 26 after spending three weeks in detention over his social media posts about COVID-19.

Goni’s lawyer Boudal Effred Mouloul told CPJ that the state would pursue a case against the journalist for the dissemination of data likely to disturb public order under Niger’s 2019 cybercrime law.

Ethiopian journalist Yayesew Shimelis’ social media posts have also landed him in hot water with local authorities. A CPJ alert said Shimelis was detained on March 27 over a COVID-19-related report he posted on YouTube and Facebook.

“In his report, Yayesew alleged that the Ethiopian government had told religious leaders to prepare 200 000 graves to accommodate deaths from the virus,” the alert said.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Health denied Shimelis’ allegation in its own Facebook post.

“The public have a right to timely, accurate information hence journalists must be allowed to work,” said Kenya Editors' Guild (KEG) president Churchill Otieno in a statement.

He was denouncing police brutality Kenyan journalist Peter Wainaina experienced while he was working during Kenya’s COVID-19 curfew on March 27.

“The State made it clear that journalism, as part of licensed media, is an essential service hence media work shall be enabled to continue,” Otieno said.

In the statement, KEG demanded that the identifiable police offer be immediately disarmed and prosecuted and that inspector-general of police Hillary Mutyambai and the director of public prosecutions Noordin Haji take action on the matter.

A day after Wainana was harassed in Mombasa, Weru TV reporter Gregory Murithi was attacked by administration officers while filming a social distancing operation in South Imenti, according to a Nairobi News article. The article added that Murithi was ordered to delete his footage.

In a statement, the South African National Editors' Forum said firm action from the army and police helps ensure South Africans adhere to the lockdown measures.

“However, we believe it is important that all security force members also strictly adhere to our president’s instructions against excessive force and abuse – and that as regards journalists, they are clearly informed about our right, as designated essential services workers, to be on the streets for our work,” the statement said.

The forum was responding to police brutality experienced by two journalists on the country’s first day of national lockdown.

Tracey Adam’s cellphone was confiscated by a police officer when she was recording an assault in Capricorn Park, Cape Town.

Azarrah Karrim was caught in a Yeoville, Johannesburg crossfire where she was shot at, her employer News24 reported.

“Attacks on journalists and censorship send the message that critical reporting and dissenting opinions on the pandemic will not be tolerated.

“Governments should desist from using the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on the free press because at times of crisis like this, the public needs journalists to provide reliable information, as a matter of safety and public health, and to make sure that officials are held accountable,” Mumo said.

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