Over 80 media and human rights organisations have written to African leaders urging them to release jailed journalists. frayintermedia spoke to Angela Quintal who is the Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Can we start with a quick overview of your views on the state of journalism in sub-Saharan Africa?
I am awed by the courage and resilience of many journalists across sub-Saharan Africa, who at great cost to themselves and their families, continue to do their jobs by trying to ensure the powerful are held to account and the public remains informed.
They are journalists like Cameroon’s Wawa Jackson Nfor, Tanzania’s Azory Gwanda, Burundi’s Iwacu 4, Benin’s Ignace Sossou, and Nigeria’s Agba Jalingo. A quick glance at the cases documented by CPJ’s Africa Program over the years is testimony to this.
Yes, there may be problems, including ethical and financial ones, but every day journalists throughout our continent are being harassed, assaulted, arrested, prosecuted, and jailed in connection to their work.
We have seen leaders demonise the press to deflect attention from their own failures and greed, and we have seen journalists continue to expose the rot. We have witnessed innovation and collaboration across newsrooms and borders, but also the loss of thousands of jobs and the struggle to adapt. Just as Africa is not a country, so too the state of journalism on the continent is not uniform and differs from country to country and region to region.
What are the particular challenges journalists are having to deal with?
There are a myriad of challenges. From editorial interference to economic pressures; repressive laws to digital and physical surveillance; safety concerns to cyberbullying; and from sexual harassment to sexism. The list is long. Of particular concern is the trust deficit between journalists and members of the public.
Amid heightened rhetoric about the spreading of false news, particularly by
US President Donald Trump, CPJ has documented an uptick in the number
of journalists charged with false news across the world and our continent in particular. Globally, the number of journalists convicted of this offence rose from 11 in 2016 to 31 on 1 December, 2019, according to CPJ ‘s research.
According to an Afrobarometer survey released last year, popular support for media freedom across Africa has dropped to under 50% for the first time. Tragically, this may help explain the lack of outrage and solidarity from citizens in countries where governments continue to jail journalists and violate the right to media freedom and the public’s right to know.
Another concern is that journalists, especially female journalists, are targeted for appalling online abuse and trolling, The resulting trauma is not something to be dismissed or glossed over. I was back in South Africa during last year’s election and interviewed several journalists that were, and continue to be, targeted in this way.
One of the issues highlighted was the psychological toll that they had to ensure. Sunday Times journalist, Qaanitah Hunter, went public last year about the impact of being threatened. She linked to a 2018 Vice News article and tweeted, "Being a journalist is terrible for your mental health...simply because no one speaks about the effect of this on our lives."
However, on the upside, I have noticed that slowly but surely, more and more journalists appear to recognise that they are experiencing trauma because of their work, and are prepared to seek help. We include this aspect in our journalist assistance work.
Can we talk specifically about press freedom or rather freedom of expression? We see many governments taking steps to protect citizens during this time of COVID-19 but some of these might impact on these freedoms. Is this something that concerns the CPJ?
Without a doubt. In many countries, the first victim of the coronavirus pandemic has been the truth and access to information. This is particularly concerning, as this public health crisis has made it clearer than ever that citizens need reliable information as a matter of safety and public health.
Particularly in authoritarian regimes, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame the media or to use emergency measures as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression and other civil liberties.
We are seeing a range of threats to press freedom as the world battles COVID19, including legal restrictions and criminalization of journalism and free expression. We see this, for example, in the use of false news laws.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently enacted a regulation that people who peddled information deemed false by the government face up to 20 years in prison, a hefty fine or both. This is outrageous. Some people have already been arrested and face prosecution. Even in South Africa, our government has seen fit to criminalise disinformation about COVID-19.
Some media lawyers have argued that it is probably legally defensible, while others believe that it is overly broad and unlawful “because it falls short of international, regional, and domestic protections afforded to the right to freedom of expression”.
Eswatini has also joined the bandwagon. In South Africa, while it’s for a limited period, what’s stopping the criminalization of disinformation from being extended or reintroduced, for example, ahead of an election. Already we have seen some officials mooting the idea of regulating social media to stop the spread of so-called “fake news”. However, as UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye, has noted there are other ways to do this, including through media literacy and fact-checking.
In April the CPJ and over 80 other organisations sent a letter to heads of state calling on them to release journalists in detention. Why now?
Our advocacy efforts to ensure that jailed journalists are freed is a big part of CPJ’s work throughout the year. It’s not just a catchy hashtag that #JournalismIsNotACrime, we firmly believe that journalists should not be jailed in connection to their work.
It’s as simple as that.
The letter is part of CPJ’s #FreeThePress campaign for World Press Freedom Day on May 3. We are also encouraging people to sign our petition as we increase efforts to see as many journalists freed this year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the global public health threat, it became even more urgent to secure the release of journalists, many of whom have been awaiting trial for years.
Our latest prison census, documented at least 250 journalists in jail worldwide on December 1. 39 were in sub-Saharan Africa.
As the World Health Organization has stated: “People deprived of their liberty, and those living or working in enclosed environments in their close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease than the general population.”
We know that prisoners are more vulnerable because of overcrowding and poor conditions in most prisons, so the threat of infection is even greater. Journalism should not be a death sentence.
In Cameroon where there are eight journalists in jail, at least 5 are held in the chronically overcrowded Kondengui Prison in the capital Yaounde. The letter was sent to 10 African heads of state who have journalists in jail, as well as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the African Union’s chairperson.
Just this week, one of the journalists Martin Doulguet of Chad, was freed on bail. Cameroonian president Paul Biya, who has the second-most journalists in jail in sub-Saharan Africa after Eritrea, recently announced a remission of sentence that had no real effect, because most detainees are awaiting-trial or were excluded because they are political prisoners.
What actions should media leaders be taking to protect journalists at this time?
Obviously they have a duty of care towards those working for them. Media leaders need to ensure that journalists are empowered to cover COVID-19 safely, compassionately, ethically and responsibly. Where possible they should have the necessary protective gear and those who are high risk should be allowed to work remotely and not be expected to cover anything that would place them at more risk.
The good news is that a range of organizations and media outlets have risen to the challenge and ensured that journalists have the necessary training and resources to do so.
CPJ, for example, has translated its comprehensive COVID-19 safety advisories into several languages - more than 30 at last count -and continues to update it regularly.
Furthermore, when journalists are singled out by authorities under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, and are being assaulted, insulted, detained, and or charged, employers or commissioning editors need to have their back. I have seen too many cases of media organizations claiming they are struggling financially and are unable to assist a stringer or correspondent because they are not permanent employees.
Equally important, they should not use COVID-19 as an excuse to retrench staff and/or reduce salaries, but must consider other ways of saving costs and reducing the financial burden and anxiety that their employees face in these uncertain times.
What specific advice do you have for African journalists?
Journalists are indeed an essential service and need to report accurately and responsibly. This is an opportunity to prove that accurate information and credibility matters. It is also a chance to regain and strengthen the trust of citizens, many of whom may have been fooled by leaders into thinking that journalists are somehow the enemy and cannot be trusted.
They should take care not to scapegoat others and sow fear or peddle disinformation.
And given the massive injection of cash and other aid to governments amid the pandemic, it would be prudent to follow the money!
Finally, the value of solidarity cannot be underestimated, journalists should care about what is happening to their colleagues within their own countries, but also elsewhere. It’s trite but true: it may be somebody else today, but tomorrow it may well be you.
You can find out more about Angela Quintal here.