Ten journalists in six countries in West Africa have suffered physical attacks, threats, detentions or dismissals with three media houses attacked over various incidents related to the COVID-19 epidemic from May-August 2020.
In April, the MFWA reported a series of media repression related to the pandemic recorded between March and April 2020. Our continued monitoring of the media and the COVID-19 together with our partner organisations across West Africa shows that the media continues to suffer significant collateral damage in the fight against the pandemic as the following incidents show;
On May 7, security officers enforcing the COVID-19 restrictions at the Slip Way Check point in Monrovia, accosted Christopher Walker, a journalist with FrontPageAfrica, who was on his way home from work. Walker produced his professional card and a pass to show that he was a journalist. However, the police rejected it, insisting on a controversial pass approved by the Deputy Minister for Information that purportedly nullifies a previous pass exempting journalists from the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew. The officers assaulted the journalist and detained him.
On May 20, the head of the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA), Jerry Blamo, accused journalist Sunny Blar of breaking the COVID-19 curfew and attacked him. Sunny Blar, who works for the Development Communication Network (DCN) FM 91.3 in Cestos, River Cess County, had come out of the premises of the radio station to buy drinking water just across the street. The officer flogged Blar despite the journalist displaying his press card.
The third and final violation related to the COVID-19 in Liberia occurred on May 23, when Trojan Kaizolu, a journalist with Fabric Radio, was beaten and taken into detention by the police for not wearing a face mask. Deputy Inspector General of Police (IGP) for Operations, Melvin Sackor, ordered his men to flog the journalist who was on his way home from a late night shift. On the orders of the senior officer, the beaten journalist was bundled into a police pickup vehicle and taken to a nearby police station where he was detained.
The Deputy IGP Marvin Sackor later apologised to Trojan Kiazolu after the PUL brokered a mediation between the two parties.
On May 4, a senior editor with IBC Orient FM radio station, Vivian Ottih, made an appeal on Facebook for the payment of salary arrears for workers of the State-owned media outlet, only to get sacked. Salaries of the station’s workers for March and April, 2020 had not been paid because of revenue slumps due to COVID-19.
On June 4: Saint Meinpamo Onitsha of Naija Live TV was detained by Nigeria’s Department of State Services after he reported the collapse of a COVID-19 isolation centre in Kogi State.
On August 3, some four police officers physically assaulted Siriku Obarayese, a correspondent for the privately owned Daily Post newspaper while he was covering the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions in Oshogbo, Osun State. Obarayese said that Adebayo Adeleke, a local state commissioner, ordered the officers to attack him.
Late in the night of May 19, a group of youngsters attacked the Director of Publication of the Wa Grand Place newspaper, Moussa Guèye at Santhiaba in the city of Rufisque. The attack was so sudden and brutal that Gueye did not have the time to explain to the overzealous COVID-19 vigilantes that he was a journalist and not a curfew breaker.
On June 2, a group of people protesting against restrictive COVID-19 measures, attacked the headquarters of RFM Radio based in Mbacké, 198 km from Dakar. The attack resulted in damage to several equipment of the radio station which belongs to the famous singer and former minister, Youssou N’Dour.
On August 3, a group of religious fanatics invaded and vandalised the offices of the Senegalese daily, Les Echos in Dakar, causing extensive damage to property. The attack followed a report by the newspaper that an influential religious leader, Serigne Moustapha Sy, had tested positive for COVID-19 and been admitted at Dakar’s main hospital.
On May 3, the authorities arrested a blogger, Mommeu Ould Bouzouma over a tweet in which he criticised as “erratic” the enforcement of COVID-19 lockdown in the district of Tiris Zemmour. Bouzouma, who is also the correspondent of the news website Alakhbar.info in Zouerate, was released after spending 12 days in detention.
On June 2, the police arrested Salma Mint Tolba, the alleged author of a series of audio recordings questioning aspects of the government’s response to the COVID-19. Notably, she accused the authorities of inflating the number of infections. Two other people, Mohamed Ould Semmane and Sidi Mohamed Ould Beyah, who were suspected to have participated in the dissemination of the audio, were also arrested.
On June 21, 2020, the police detained Ebou N. Keita, an editor and camera operator with the privately owned Gambian Talents Television after they spotted him filming their crackdown on protesters. The police were arresting people who were protesting against the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Emmanuel Ohene Gyan, a reporter of Empire FM in the Western Region of Ghana, received threats from relatives of the Metropolitan Chief Executive (MCE) of Sekondi-Takoradi following his online publication on the COVID-19-related death of the late MCE on June 12, 2020.
On June 15, 2020, a group of gendarmes stormed the premises of Radio Kalac FM, broadcasting in Kankan, and shut it down. The radio station was accused of flouting a gag order issued against Karamo Cheick Souleymane Sidibé, an influential preacher whom the authorities had sanctioned for organising a mass a sermon in his house against the COVID-19 protocols.
Meanwhile thirty-two journalists are reported to have tested positive for COVID-19 in Guinea since March 2020. Also, drastic revenue losses have forced media owners to truncate a process of adopting a collective bargaining agreement. The agreement was supposed to guarantee a decent minimum wage, annual leave, professional development, health insurance and study trip and legal aid. However, media owners say the financial losses they have suffered from the COVID-19 makes it impossible to continue the process.
The attacks have the potential to undermine the important role the media is playing in the fight against the COVID-19 in various countries and on the global level. In her solidarity message on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day of May 3, 2020, the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, underlined the crucial importance of the media during the COVID-19 crisis and cautioned press freedom violations.
“In a world as profoundly interdependent as this crisis has shown ours to be, every threat to, or attack on the diversity of the press, the freedom of the press and the safety of journalists concerns us all. Today, I wish to call for a redoubling of our efforts. At this crucial moment and for our future, we need a free press, and journalists need to be able to count on all of us.”
The MFWA deplores these attacks on journalists and media houses and reiterate our call for greater collaboration between the media and law enforcement agencies enforcing COVID-19 restrictions and protocols. In this regard, we urge the various states to sensitise law enforcement officers on the constitutional guarantees on press freedom and the state’s duty under various international protocols to protect journalists from physical attacks, arbitrary arrests and detentions.
We also urge media owners to train their staff to appreciate and deal with the safety risks associated with reporting on the pandemic, especially when covering operations of security forces involving use of force.
Finally, the MFWA salutes the sacrifices that journalists have made and continue to make in supporting governments’ efforts at fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the many risks and constraints. We encourage them to persevere and continue to innovate in order to survive the myriad safety of journalists and media sustainability challenges posed by the outbreak of the corona virus.