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Ensuring safety of the watchdog during COVID-19, beyond

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The world, today, is in a war situation, with journalists and media practitioners as frontline soldiers, because of their quest to bring information to the people without fear or favour.

The common saying that ‘when war breaks, truth is the first casualty, but trust is journalism’ puts this into perspective.

Media watchers and commentators have, in fact, argued that all over the world, there is a conspiracy to control the press, insisting that no legitimate reason should stop the press from reporting crisis, especially now that the world is faced with Coronavirus pandemic.

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They noted that it was very wrong for the Chinese government to accuse the ‘whistleblower’, ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang, of disturbing ‘public order’. Wenliang had sent a warning message in late December 2019 of the devastating effect of COVID-19.

They pointed out that in an authoritarian state like China, media outlets are state-controlled, and dissidents as well as independent journalists, are routinely silenced.

The media in China failed to draw global attention at the early stage of the pandemic, as well as the delay by World Health Organisation (WHO) in taking a stand on the mode of transmission. In fact, on January 14, WHO tweeted a post citing the investigation of Chinese authorities that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the disease.”

Journalists and media workers are crucial to the fight against coronavirus, as they help with informed decisions, which could make the difference between life and death.

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Many have also argued that the COVID-19 pandemic might just be the long-awaited opportunity for African journalism to redefine itself, be proactive and take the lead in projecting the continent in a positive way to the rest of the world.
 
Hence, to celebrate the 2020 World Press Freedom Day, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in a webinar held last Tuesday, May 5, called on governments and others to help journalists perform their duties throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, so as to help stem the pandemic spread, noting that as the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to the second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories.

UNESCO insisted that governments must protect media workers to strengthen and maintain press freedom, which is essential for a future of peace, justice and human rights for all.

The 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) index stated that the future of African journalism was under threat from all sides.

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Last week, during the webinar held by UNESCO to mark this year’s Press Freedom Day, Chairman, Channels Media Group, Dr. John Momoh, stated, “I strongly believe that the corona virus would have been contained if the Chinese authority did not try to sensor and silence the sacred voice of the media. The media should be given a hand to operate in society without fear.”

He said that though the Nigerian environment was not hostile to journalists, “we must take adequate care and protection of journalists very seriously, even as safety is a personal responsibility. It is important that whilst we go about our duties, we must imbibe the nuggets of surviving in a hostile and dangerous environment. Face masks, hand gloves, proper use of equipment or tools of work cannot be overemphasised. We must not compromise our safety and security because, no story is worth the life of any journalist.”

Momoh, who gave the keynote address, said media owners must ensure journalists work in a tolerable safe environment with physical distancing in mind.

Momoh added, “those who could work from home should be allowed to do so. It is commonplace to see our colleagues in the international media working from home whenever necessary. We must rethink the media-operating environment because things will never be the same again. We must increasingly use technology to deliver on our tasks.”

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He urged the media to be daring with the investigation, factual with reports and presentation, and be blind to societal, organised corporate and political pressure to moderate its views and water down the truth; to be courageous in the face of danger and take a calculated risk.

On his part, NUJ President, Chris Isiguzo told the media not to relent in its fight against COVID 19, according to him, “The Coronavirus pandemic explains the fragility of human society. Journalists, like other frontline workers, are increasingly being exposed to danger and it is also clear that at no time in our recent history is the media industry under threats than now. There is, therefore, the urgent need to initiate remedial measures to sustain the industry and ensure that journalists do not suffer more collateral damages.”

Isiguzo stressed that journalism without fear or favour could only be achieved when journalists are paid living wages and conditions of service are crafted in such a way and manner in which journalists feel secured and protected.

He said, “Safety and security of journalists are mandatory requirements for the attainment of quality conscience journalism which strives to ensure equity and equality in a democratic setting.  When journalists are made to work in fear, democracy gets crippled and citizens continue to wallow in abject poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease. It is, therefore, becoming clearer and more urgent that good journalism is required now more than ever before.”

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Recall that Kufre Carter, a sports presenter with XL 106.9 FM in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, was reportedly detained by the DSS over a leaked telephone conversation he had with a medical doctor on the method deployed by Akwa Ibom State government in handling the spread of Coronavirus in the state. He was arraigned before a Magistrate Court in Uyo on a three-count charge bothering on defamation of character. 

The union further called for the release of all other journalists being held elsewhere in the world because of their work in journalism, especially now that COVID-19 is ravaging the world and persons in confinement are more at risk.

Also, President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, said because journalists, on a daily basis, engage all other actors involved in combating the pandemic, they face a high risk of getting infected.

According to him, “The challenges with repressive laws against free speech; clashes with security forces; threats and intimidation from politicians and public officials who don’t want to be held accountable and so on continue during the pandemic.”

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He said journalism is a dangerous profession, because “when you go after corruption in governance, the corrupt officials fight back; they intimidate you or go in search of you to harm you. And I must say, journalists in this part of the world are highly partisan and have their political masters who they out-rightly favour with complimentary stories. So the issues of safety, fear and favour are deeply rooted in our profession.

“It takes a journalist with moral conviction and proper ideological training to be able to withstand the threats of fear and the influence of favour.”

He lamented the poor aspect of the socio-economic safety of journalists, saying, “The working and welfare conditions for journalists are appalling. How many of us have health and welfare insurances or social security? We have seen many of our senior colleagues grow old in poverty and eventually die poor.

Nasralla said the media was the worst hit because it depends almost a 100 per cent on advertisements, which are currently not forthcoming. He added, “so, when the media doesn’t make money or even breakeven, there’s a ripple effect on the conditions of service and welfare of reporters, technical staff and support staff; it stifles the growth of the media and the quality output of the media.

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“Development agencies pour money to strengthen governments but ignore the independent media, which is crucial to the strengthening of democracy, good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability.

“The tension between politicians and journalists is a huge factor and will never go away, it seems. While the media is pushing for progress in our democracies, rule of law, human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability, the politicians are reluctant to give themselves up to public scrutiny.”

He cited an example with Guinea, which amidst COVID-19, the president wants to go for a third term in office, saying, “what you failed to do in two terms, you definitely cannot do in one more term.”

The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of the UN system in Nigeria, Mr. Edward Kallon, pointed out that though journalism practice in Nigeria is over 161 years, It had gone through many phases, ranging from military rule and its decrees against press freedom to democratic rule and its influence on editorials. “One thing is certain, the Nigerian press has come out stronger and sometimes referred to as one of the freest in the world.

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“Just as in the time of war or armed conflicts, you cannot practice professional journalism and in fact, cover COVID-19 professionally if you are afraid. To report accurately, clearly and timely, you must be at the frontline of the health emergency response, even in the face of threats of infection,” he added.

Kallon commended the media for its resilience, adding, “I have seen and witnessed brave Nigerian journalists, men and women, determined to get the news in a difficult situation that others probably would have shunned. I salute the courage of Nigerian journalists. I acknowledge your professionalism in the face of threats to existentialism.”

He, however, urged media entrepreneurs to support the reporters in the quest to uphold ethics and ethos of journalism to report without fear or favour and hold the government accountable to the people.

According to him, “media entrepreneurs must take the issue of welfare and safety of journalists more seriously, at this time of pandemic and at all time. I urge media owners and employers to provide minimum Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for their reporters who are on the frontline of COVID-19 response.”

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