Photographers wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus. Picture: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo.
Photographers wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus. Picture: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo.

Amnesty International warns against harassment of journalists for Covid-19 reporting

By ANA Reporter Time of article published May 3, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - As the coronavirus Covid-19 continues to spread across Southern Africa, governments are targeting journalists and media houses critical of their handling of the pandemic, Amnesty International warned on Sunday, World Press Freedom Day.

“From Madagascar to Zambia, we have seen governments criminalising journalists and shutting down media outlets that are perceived to be calling out poor government responses to Covid-19,” Amnesty International director for East and Southern Africa Deprose Muchena said in a statement.

“With the disease continuing to spread, and no end yet in sight, there has never been a greater need for accurate news and information to help people stay informed and safe. Yet, the authorities across the region are targeting journalists and media houses for their critical reporting on the pandemic, which is weakening this vital information flow," Muchena said.

Attacks on the right to freedom of expression, media freedom, and the victimisation of journalists for questioning governments' handling of Covid-19 surfaced in Madagascar as the pandemic spread in the region.

Publishing director and journalist at Ny Valosoa newspaper Arphine Helisoa was arrested and put in pre-trial detention on April 4 after she was accused of criticising the president’s handling of the national response to Covid-19 in an article. She was still in detention in Antanimora prison in the country’s capital Antananarivo.

"She was charged with spreading fake news and incitement of hatred towards President Andry Rajoelina. Amnesty International is calling for her immediate and unconditional release."

In Zambia, authorities shut down the independent television news channel Prime TV on April 9 after cancelling its broadcasting license. The cancellation came after the alleged refusal by the station to air the government’s Covid-19 public awareness campaigns because the station was owed money for previous unrelated state advertisements.

Prime TV, as an independent station, depended on advertising revenue to pay the salaries of its staff and operational costs. The authorities should immediately reverse the license cancellation for Prime TV and allow it to continue broadcasting without any harassment and intimidation, Muchena said.

In Zimbabwe, journalists and newspaper vendors had been subjected to arrests and intimidation during their work on Covid-19. At least eight journalists had faced interference and harassment in the line of their duties.

Two journalists, Nunurai Jena in Chinhoyi and Panashe Makufa in Harare, were accused of working without valid journalism accreditation cards, normally issued by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), even though the commission was yet to issue the 2020 accreditation cards to journalists.

Both journalists were reporting on the enforcement of the lockdown, including policing. This harassment and intimidation of journalists in Zimbabwe prompted the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe chapter to eventually seek a High Court order ordering the police and other law enforcement agencies charged with enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown not to interfere “in any unnecessary way” with the work of journalists. The order was granted on April 20, Muchena said.

In Swaziland, police detained Eugen Dube, journalist and editor of Swati Newsweek Online, for seven hours on April 23. The detention followed an article he wrote that the king’s public health strategy in the face of Covid-19 was reckless because the country had no physical distancing measures in place.

Authorities reportedly tried to charge him for "writing ill" about King Mswati III, which could constitute high treason. However, Amnesty International could not independently establish if he would face treason charges at the time of writing. In addition, police seized three smartphones, a laptop, notebook, and other documents related to his work after searching his residence. 

According to news reports, Swaziland News editor Zweli Dlamini was also wanted by police for reporting that the king was sick with Covid-19, but he had not handed himself over. There had been news reports in Swaziland that the king was not in good health, and it was understood that authorities had launched a witch hunt against anyone who "connects him to Covid-19", Muchena said.

In South Africa, a journalist working for online newspaper News24 was caught in the crossfire when police fired rubber bullets to disperse pockets of people loitering in the streets of Yeoville in Johannesburg on day one of the nationwide lockdown. Azarrah Karrim was on the scene filming the incident on a nearby street, when pedestrians suddenly started running to safety after being fired on by police. In the video, multiple shots could be heard "being fired at Karrim, despite her shouting 'I'm media' to police".

In Angola and Mozambique, journalists were threatened and prevented from reporting freely on government responses to the pandemic, resulting in rumours and stigma about the virus circulating via social media.

“With advertising revenues collapsing due to Covid-19, many media houses will struggle to survive; if you add harassment and censorship by governments, the future of media freedom and independent journalism in the region looks even more gloomy.

“Any effective response to Covid-19 will happen in an environment of respect for human rights and where the media is allowed to report freely. Without the media, the public will be in the dark. Southern African authorities must respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom and stop treating the media with contempt, and open up the civic space for journalists to do their work freely and safely. The real enemy is Covid-19, not the media,” Muchena said.

African News Agency (ANA)

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