Experts Want Regional Collaboration to Tackle Journalists’ Safety

Experts Want Regional Collaboration to Tackle Journalists’ Safety

…Canvass for Improved Welfare Conditions …Step Up Dialogue with Security, State Officials …Stress Need for Journalists to Abide by Safety Manuals …Want Media Advocacy Groups in the West African Sub-Region to Work in Concert Experts at a virtual discussion forum convened by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) based in Accra, Ghana, have stressed

…Canvass for Improved Welfare Conditions

…Step Up Dialogue with Security, State Officials

…Stress Need for Journalists to Abide by Safety Manuals

…Want Media Advocacy Groups in the West African Sub-Region to Work in Concert

Experts at a virtual discussion forum convened by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) based in Accra, Ghana, have stressed the need for more regional collaboration to ensure the safety of Journalists across the sub-region. Contending that, “we need a regional framework for the safety of Journalists,” they also resolved to step up their campaign against increasing violation of the rights of Journalists by security and other state actors.

Drawn from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, the media chiefs say there’s need to deepen engagement with state and security officials on the frontline role of Journalists particularly regarding the fight against Covid-19 pandemic which has spiked to over three million cases, killing more than 300,000 persons globally.

Arguing that Journalists should be provided with protective equipment, the experts also canvassed for improved welfare condition in the form of insurance cover and special allowances while imploring media owners to ensure regular payment of their salaries. They also counsel that Journalists should ensure that they abide by safety guidelines even as they thrive to effectively report Covid-19. 

The discussion forum on the theme, Safety of Journalists & Covid-19 in Anglophone West Africa, which featured Executive Secretary, National Media Commission, Ghana, Mr George Sarpong, Executive Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr Lanre Arogundade and the Chairman, Media Reform Coordinating Group, Sierra Leona, Mr Francis Sowa, was moderated by Mr Sulemana Braimah, executive director of MFWA.

Revealing that over 20 Nigerian Journalists covering Covid-19 have had their rights violated since the index case on February 28, Mr Arogundade, who narrated that Journalists have had to work within the landmine of a shrinking space for press freedom, lamented their unsavoury treatment by the Police and soldiers.

Recalling the last global pandemic which happened between 1918-1920, killing 500,000 persons in Nigeria, the IPC executive director said, “the media irrespective of the age of the practitioners, just like the government, was caught unprepared.”

“Prior to Covid-19, which occasioned lockdowns in Lagos, Ogun, Abuja and some other states, the press freedom space was already shrinking fast as a result of the war against Boko Haram (the pro-Islamic terrorist group). Journalists were at the receiving end of attacks by the Police and soldiers. Welfare rights of Journalists were also under attacks as many of them had their salaries unpaid for several months. So the aftermath of Covid-19 threw many Journalists into dire straits.

“Although President Muhammadu Buhari has lauded Journalists for their role as frontline workers in creating awareness on the pandemic, this has not been matched by the response from security and other state officials. The Minister of Information says the Journalists’ identity card is the pass for them to go about their work as essential workers but this has been persistently breached by security officials deployed to enforce the lockdown who daily harass Journalists,” Mr Arogundade observed.

Recounting the cases of attacks particularly in Ebonyi where two Journalists were purportedly banned for life from any government functions and its offices, the arrest of a Journalist in Imo for pleading for the payment of outstanding salaries of her colleagues and in Rivers, where a journalist was arrested over the reporting of the index case, Mr Arogundade noted that the security officials are embolden by the ill treatment meted to Journalists by some Governors and their aides.

Continuing further, he said, the frustrations over too many press statements and mere condemnations by his organisation on series of attacks on Journalists led to a petition to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB)

“In order to take our advocacy beyond press statements, IPC and MRA have jointly petitioned the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to bring the Ebonyi State Governor, Mr David Umahi to book. We petitioned the CCB, asking it to sanction Mr Umahi for allegedly misconducting himself, breaching his oath of office and the Code of Conduct for Public Officers following his recent attacks on Journalists in the State. Governor Umahi has however said that he was mis-quoted.

“We have tried to examine different areas of coverage of Covid-19 by the media. We came up with a manual on safety in the coverage of Covid-19. We also collaborated with four other groups, on a survey on Journalists coverage of Covid-19. We also at the level of our online news platform, Nigerian Democratic Report (NDR) worked on a story focusing on the editors’ perspective of the Covid-19 coverage by the media.

“There are certainly challenges in terms of the aggressive reporting by the media of the pandemic. The government appears comfortable with the media reporting the number of cases that’s regularly dished out by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19 but when it comes to the media scrutiny on transparency and how the funds allotted to tackle the pandemic are being managed, there’s a big challenge.

“We need all media groups in West Africa to work in concert by deploying the ECOWAS protocol and the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) to exert pressure on their respective governments to desist from the violation of the rights of the media. Organisations should also collaborate more to condemn media violations wherever it happens in the sub region. We should make the point that the work of Journalists should be supported. We also need to strategise on engagement of the security officials on these issues,” Mr Arogundade stressed.

He’s of the view that the absence of a media representation on the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 left a lacuna in terms of appreciating the work of Journalists and facilitating their movements around the vital areas of operations.

Securing the freedom of the Ghanaian Journalists against the backdrop of Covid-19 and in the face of the Electronic Communications Act is a tough one and remains a challenge, according to Mr Sarpong. This is within the context of the perception of security officials that the work of Journalists undermines the state.

He however, disclosed that after the dialogue with the government, the President, Mr Nana Akufo Addo assured he would support Journalists and provide hand gloves, face masks and personal protective equipments to ease their work, approve fee waivers for the private broadcasting stations and also offer budget support for the operations of state owned media organisations.

“We have to ensure that the Electronic Communications Act of Ghana is implemented in such a way that it does not violate the rights of Journalists.  We really need some measure of discretion in the applicability of the law. We belief that Ghana, has come a long way in terms of its democratic transition and there’s some balancing act that needs to be done.

“What we do in the media regulation agency is to ensure that Journalists are safe.  We are working with the Ghana Media Association and the Ghana Broadcasting Association to articulate guidelines on how this can be done.

Sarpong believes, “There’s a need for regulatory agencies to create conditions for the survival of the media because its own sustenance is dependent on that. Without a thriving media industry, there would be no basis for regulatory organisations. Our existence is based on the survival of a free and democratic media

“We all need to do more particularly in creating awareness amongst the persons living with disabilities (PWDs because they are a key segment of the vulnerable group,” he quips.   

Explaining their experience in Sierra Leone, which recorded its index case on March 31st, Mr Sowa said in spite of the resolve of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) to collaborate with the government on containing the spread of Covid-19, some Journalists received a bloodied nose.

In a case that has become sensational, one of the Journalists, Mr Faya Amaya Faya was seriously beaten and battered by nine soldiers who accused him of obstructing their work. He was subsequently arrested and taken to court.

“Unfortunately, when the Chief Justice closed the courts as a result of Covid-19, the case came to a halt. So we need engagement to ensure that issues of infringement on Journalists are given priority by the courts,” Sowa said.

According to him, “After the declaration of state of emergency on March 21st which was done prior to the index case, there were concerns that the rights of Journalists would be abridged.

“There’s a general issue of trust and misunderstanding of the role of Journalists by the security forces. We always have cordial relationship with the senior Police officers but when it comes to the other ranks, there’s a problem. So there’s a need for different levels of dialogue between the media and security officials and the media and other public officials,” he added.

Positing that many Journalists work without sparing any thoughts on safety issues, Sowa revealed that his country’s national media commission needed to be supported in terms of capacity. “We need to design some guidelines on building capacity. The issue of safety of Journalists goes beyond staving off attacks by the security officials. It is also a media sustainability issue,” he said.

The webinar attracted participants from the three English speaking countries. The organisers say they plan another version for Journalists in the Francophone region of West Africa. They also plan one for the engagement of security officials.          

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