Many challenges for female African journalists covering Covid-19
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Throughout Africa, female journalists are given a raw deal. The Sunday Independent scoured parts of the continent, getting personal accounts from media in several countries, all sketching a gloomy picture of working under challenging conditions. These are some of their stories as told to Edwin Naidu.
Like every journalist, female reporters fear exposure to infection from the novel coronavirus because of the many contacts they interact with, said Kenyan journalist Vereso Mwanga.
“Another challenge is that the majority of journalists (not just women) have evolved into health reporters overnight because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This means that they are learning how to cover coronavirus related stories on the job. While organisations such as the World Health Organization have been resourceful in giving guidelines on best terminologies to use, many journalists would have benefited more if there was capacity building on how to cover the disease when it first broke out,” she said.
Mwanga said the majority of mainstream media houses in Kenya, except the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, have announced pay cuts of between 5% to 30%, citing economic challenges brought about by Covid-19.
Kenyan television journalist Coletta Wanjohi, who has been working for the past eight years in Addis Ababa with Washington-based Feature Story News, said the government had not given special privileges to journalists during Covid-19 and as a result, their work was being hampered. In addition to this, a poor internet connection also affected the recording of interviews using social media platforms.
“The government declared a state of emergency for five months ending in August as a means of combating Covid-19. We must work harder. Stories are not bringing themselves in; we must find them. When Covid-19 came in March, we were reporting on prevention and awareness; now we’re talking about survival,” she said.
Karen Walter, journalist and mother of two, aged 8 and 13, in Mauritius, said women dominated in her newsroom, with 16 females compared to 11 men. “Both men and women are more or less assigned the same tasks. For the last general elections, for example, women covered political meetings until late at night. In general, we can carry out our duties smoothly,” she said.
But there are exceptional cases where the outcome is not as expected in the field. An example, Walter said, related to when a woman colleague covered a political meeting in the capital Port-Louis before the 2019 general elections.
“Her assignment was to bring impressions from those men as well as women attending the meeting. When she came back to the office, she related how the women present were reluctant to share their impressions in the media, even to a woman journalist. That explains the absence of women commentaries for gender balance.
“Being a spouse, mother and journalist is not always an easy task. Time and task management are crucial, but the fact remains that we just can't perform things as we would have liked to. There are sacrifices, like spending less time with our children, even when working from home since the outbreak of Covid-19,” she said.
Freelance science and technology writer Esther Nakkazi, who lives in Entebbe, Uganda, said working during Covid-19 was difficult as media houses had slashed budgets and the poor quality of internet connections made working a challenge, as she had to rely on webinars as a main source of story ideas. “We also have power issues, and with data proving expensive, one hurdle after another.
“I am suffering, losing out on income as opportunities are drying up. In the past, I would pitch to some and leave out other outlets I used to send. Now you have to pitch to everybody who can take your story, no choice but you have to survive,” said Nakkazi, a mother of one who lives with an extended family.
Mercy Adhiambo, a features reporter focusing on health and human interest for The Standard in Nairobi, said she and staff on the newspaper were given a 25% pay cut due to Covid-19.
“Right now, we are working from home to reduce the spread of the virus. Before corona, we were able to get around easily, but with the curfew, movement is restricted, meaning that we must use our data more quickly. What would help is if we got more data at this unprecedented time,” she said.
Ugandan journalist Kitubu Martin said gender equality in Uganda was open to discussion. “I work with The New Vision, the leading, oldest, and biggest media house in Uganda. The story is different here. We have more female photojournalists than the male. Also, we have more female managers than male. At our media house, I have seen a number of female colleagues being promoted in a space of four years,” he said.
Martin said several female journalists were not risk-takers. “Those that are, are getting better opportunities than their male counterparts. Also, some are sidelined by certain editors to undertake the excuse of health, etc. I have seen female journalists turning down opportunities to cover riots, strikes because they are associated with violence,” he added.
On World Press Freedom Day, Farhia Mohamed Kheyre, chairperson of the Somali Women Journalists Organisation, said it was generally hard for women to work in Somalia's media atmosphere as the male-dominated society believes that journalism is not for women.
“These cultural barriers have led to a big gap between the number of men and women in media, the position of women in organisational structures, working conditions and recruitment process. Women journalists are significantly under-represented in Somali media houses.
She added that female journalists were treated differently than men, reflecting the diminished role of women in society. “Men, especially the media managers, view women as incompetent of serious reporting, covering news, discovering the facts, thinking rationally rather than emotionally. As a result, most media organisations- radio and television, limit women in all programmes.”
Mohamed Kheyre said female journalists complained about harassment in the workplace as well as in the field and faced social stigma. “There is no equal job opportunity in the sector. The cornerstone of this inequality at the workplace, and even during the recruitment process, originates from bad and negative stereotypes within the community which the female journalists bow down to.”