Updated: Apr 16, 2020
As governments enforce strict physical distancing measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, there is a pressing need for journalists to be recognised as essential workers on the continent.
In a recent press statement, The African Editors' Forum (TAEF) called on governments who have not yet declared media workers as essential workers to do so.
“This would, as it has done before, enable them to do their work without any hindrance. TAEF also cautions that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic must not be used by some governments on our continent to restrict media freedom and independence,” the statement said.
The South African government recognises the media as essential workers exempt from the strict rules of the ongoing three-week-long national lockdown. With over 1300 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the country has the highest number of infections in Africa, as reflected on Johns Hopkins University's interactive map.
“The onset of the pandemic and how the government and society react to it is one of the biggest stories of our lifetime. It is a story that can only be told properly by a free media that is able to get where they need to and provide details, photographs, and video footage.
“Expressly declaring media workers as essential workers, as has been done before in similar circumstances, is the right and only thing to do,” TAEF chairperson Jovial Rantao told frayintermedia.
Strathmore University Business School Africa Media Hub director Rosemary Okello-Orlale said journalists play a vital role in distributing information to communities during a crisis.
“Without the proper management of information, we cannot see the impact of combating the coronavirus,” Okello-Orlale said.
There are other countries in Africa that are allowing journalists to move around and cover the COVID-19 story.
Although Egypt imposed a two-week-long night-time curfew between 7 pm and 6 pm on March 25 to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak in the country, journalists are exempted with certain conditions.
“Egypt considers the work of journalism to be required at this time and accordingly all news organizations have continued to function fully while taking internal precautions related to the number of staff present at any given time [...] with more work being made possible from home,” said Fatemah Farag, founder and CEO of Egyptian media company Welad ElBalad Media.
Non-essential providing businesses like cafes and gyms are closed and shops other than food stores and pharmacies will have to close from 5 pm, according to a Reuters article.
While governments may recognise the role journalists play in fighting the impacts of disasters, the relationship between authorities and the media can still be antagonistic.
This is according to publisher and CEO of Nigerian newspaper Premium Times Dapo Olorunyomi who said Nigerian media and authorities have a “difficult relationship”.
Olorunyomi said the Nigerian government has often disapproved of the media’s coverage of crises such as the ebola epidemic and the ongoing issues of insurgency in the country.
“Historically, the media has been seen as irritants and dismissable entities,” he said.
When Abba Kyari the chief-of-staff to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari tested positive for COVID-19, Olorunyomi said the presidency responded by restricting journalists’ access to the presidency.
“[They reaccredited] only “friendly” media from state and private media coverage rights to the presidency,” Olorunyomi said.
Farag said in times of crises, the media should be recognised as essential workers to particularly combat the issues of misinformation.
“Information void people need to be filled. This is generally true — but in the case of COVID-19, the lack of information clearly costs lives,” she said.