Beyond the frightening human toll the COVID-19 is exacting across the world, the pandemic has also led to attacks, detention and judicial penalties against journalists covering the outbreak and related issues in various countries in West Africa.
Over the past one month, eight journalists have been assaulted in six separate incidents, two have been fined and another imprisoned for various publications about the COVID-19 or in the course of covering activities related to the pandemic.
On April 1, 2020, members of an environment task force in Delta State, Nigeria, assaulted Michael Ikeogwu, Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the State, and the Daily Post’s correspondent, Mathew Omonigho, who were monitoring and reporting on the state of compliance of the COVID-19 lockdown. The journalists were attacked after they asked the leader of the task force why they were forcing some local residents to carry out a sanitation exercise despite the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and in breach of the lockdown order.
On April 2, 2020, armed policemen enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown raided the Adamawa State Secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) and rounded up twelve journalists who were gathered at the facility. The journalists were taken to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad’s (SARS) detention facility and detained on charges of breaking the COVID-19 lockdown.
The state Chairman of NUJ, Ishaka Donald Deden who was among the twelve arrested, later explained that his colleagues had returned from the day’s assignment covering COVID-19 issues and were sharing their experiences, while others were using the internet at the NUJ Secretariat to file their reports, as all commercial cyber cafes had been closed because of the pandemic. Others had also come to follow the evening update from the disease control centre.
In Sierra Leone, a military officer brutalized Fayia Amara Fayia, a journalist who works with Standard Times newspaper on April 2, 2020. The journalist had gone to a suspected COVID-19 quarantine venue at Dama Road to report on activities there. Having been denied entry into the facility together with other journalists present, Fayia decided to take photos with his phone from a distance, a gesture that a military officer identified as Major Fofanah found to be provocative. Major Fofanah lunged into the journalist, grabbed his mobile phone and beat him mercilessly.
Fayia was later detained at the Kenema Police until his colleagues intervened to secure his release and took him to the hospital where he was treated and discharged but confined to a wheel chair.
On March 28, 2020, a security officer in Nigeria manhandled Angela Nkwo-Akpolu, the correspondent of the Leadership newspaper in Imo State, Nigeria, while she was covering an exercise to enforce directives on containing the COVID-19. The officer seized the journalist’s prescription eye-glasses as well as her iPad and deleted the pictures she had taken of a hotel which had been forced to quarantine its guests as punishment for allegedly failing to comply with government’s directives regarding the pandemic.
In Guinea Bissau, uniformed security officers assaulted Serifo Tawel Camara, a journalist with Radio Capital, on March 24, 2020. The officers said Camara, who had just stepped out of the radio station premises, had broken the COVID-19 curfew, although the media is officially exempted from the restriction.
On April 5, 2020, a soldier assaulted Yussif Abdul Ganiyu, General Manager of Zuria FM for his station’s critical reports about brutal military enforcement of the COVID-19 lockdown in Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city. A female soldier, Second Lieutenant Betrot Ampoma, hauled Ganiyu into the patrol vehicle and slapped him several times after accusing the journalist’s radio station of maligning the military. The station had reported military brutalities against a 71-year-old man who had allegedly flouted the lockdown order.
On March 25, 2020 a police officer in Senegal assaulted two journalists from Touba TV, Awa Ndiaye and Ousseynou Mbodj. The journalists, who had obtained the necessary authorisation, were out in the town of Touba in Senegal to report on how a curfew aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 was being observed, when an overzealous police officer assaulted them. A video of the journalists presenting their authorisation to cover the enforcement of the curfew and the subsequent assault by the officer has since gone viral, together with pictures of Awa Ndiaye lying in a hospital bed.
The assaults add to an incident of arrest and two cases of legal proceedings against journalists and media organisations over their reports on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a publication about a prison facility in Cote d’Ivoire, a civil court imposed a fine of FCFA 5million (USD 8,356.55) on two senior journalists of the Générations Nouvelles and the newspaper after ruling that they published “false information likely to cause panic” in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The newspaper published that two people who had recently been taken into custody at the Abidjan Central Prison, were allegedly infected with the coronavirus. The prison administration denied the information and filed a complaint against Cissé Sindou, director of publication of the Générations Nouvelles and the editor, Marc Dossa as well as the media organisation on March 25, 2020.
In a similar incident, the police in Niger on March 5, 2020, arrested an independent journalist, Kaka Touda and detained him for four days before transferring him to the civil prison in Niamey on a detention warrant. The journalist was handed a three-month suspended sentence for “dissemination of information likely to disturb public order” under Niger’s 2019 cybercrime code. The journalist had published on March 4, that a suspected case of coronavirus infection had been recorded at the Niamey General Hospital, a claim rejected as false by the hospital authorities.
This onslaught against the media that has been recorded over just one month, is hardly the ideal prospect for an institution that is expected to play a critical role in the fight against the COVID-19 scourge.
The wanton attacks by security agents on journalists in the line of duty covering the pandemic have the potential to undermine the victims’ morale and hamper the vital contribution that the media is making and is expected to make towards national and global efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
The media is expected to play a critical public information, education and sensitisation role in the anti-COVID-19 crusade. This is crucial, given that information is the lifeblood of the campaign. The public needs adequate and accurate information about the precautions to take and where they can access help, and the media is the principal channel for disseminating this information. To attack journalists who are in the frontline of this function amounts to asphyxiating the exercise.
Having said this, the MFWA also recognises and shares in the concern that misinformation could be as fatal as lack of information. In this moment of emergency, false information can create panic and undermine the efforts of public health authorities. Consequently, we deplore any deliberate publication of false information not only in relation to the COVID-19 but on all subjects and at all times.
Nevertheless, the abuse of anti-false information laws to target critical journalists and censor the media is unacceptable. It is particularly alarming for countries which have otherwise scrapped criminal prosecution for press offenses, to impose judicial penalties including custodial sentence on journalists for publishing materials, under other laws ostensibly adopted to fight terrorism and protect national security.
In view of the above, we urge the governments of the various countries in West Africa to increase collaboration with, and ensure a free flow of information to the media to discourage speculations. The authorities of public institutions must prioritise the use of rejoinders and the complaints settlement mechanisms at the independent media regulatory bodies.
The military and other security agencies must be given further orientation on press freedom and the complementary roles they and journalists are expected to play in ensuring successful compliance with COVID-19 control measures announced by the various governments.
Finally, journalists must double-check their information before publishing them, being always sensitive about the potential impact of their publications on the fight against the pandemic. Media professionals must also take precautions to ensure their personal safety and security.