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March 29, 2020 - Updated on April 2, 2020

Coronavirus infects press freedom in Africa

Nigerian Health Minister Osagie Ehanire shows a picture of the new coronavirus COVID-19 as he addresses the media on the first confirmed case of this virus in Nigeria at a press briefing in Abuja on 28 February 2020. - Kola Sulaimon / AFP
As journalists and media covering the coronavirus pandemic’s spread in Africa continue to be subjected to censorship, acts of intimidation and physical violence, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on African governments not to go after the wrong target and to guarantee press freedom, which is more essential than ever at this time.

According to today’s tally, Africa has a total of 3,337 coronavirus cases and 90 deaths. The pandemic has already reached almost all of the African Union’s 55 member states and the vice is tightening dangerously on the continent’s journalists. The media victims include Tholi Totali Glody, a reporter for Alfajari TV in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was run down by police officers while using a motorcycle to cover a lockdown ordered by the governor in his province. Similar incidents have occurred in Senegal, where a Touba TV crew that had a permit from the prefect’s office to cover a lockdown was hit several times by a policeman with a baton; and in Uganda, where police attacked Uganda Radio Network director Julius Ocungi, taking his money and camera, when he tried to cover a bar being closed down. In Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, TVC journalists who were accompanying police as they closed down public places were roughed by members of a church, who took their phones. In Ethiopia, two members of the foreign press corps, Tom Gardner, who reports for The Economist and The Guardian, and AFP’s Robbie Corey-Boulet, were accused of being coronavirus carriers by a troll with more than 30,000 followers.

 

These cases of physical violence and intimidation have been compounded by attempts to restrict the media’s ability to operate properly. The authorities in Nigeria and Liberia have decided to limit access to the president’s office to a handful of media outlets that are nearly all controlled by the government or supportive of it. In Cameroon, the authorities are providing no information to several critical but very popular media outlets. And in Madagascar, the authorities have banned radio phone-in programmes in which listeners could express their views about the pandemic and the way the government is dealing with it.

 

Finally, judicial harassment is also being stepped up. In Côte d’Ivoire, two journalists were fined 5 million CFA francs (7,620 euros) each on charges of “spreading false news” for reporting that there were two coronavirus cases in Abidjan’s main prison, a claim denied by the prison authorities. Such an offence is now punishable by up to six months in prison in South Africa, which has just adopted harsher legislation in response to the coronavirus epidemic. In Mali, the police briefly arrested a reporter for the L’Indépendant newspaper in connection with a report on the epidemic. The same thing happened to a DRTV crew in the Republic of Congo.

 

What with attacks, intimidation, arrests of journalists, censorship and exclusion of critical media, press freedom must not be the collateral victims of this worldwide epidemic,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. Targeting journalists is undoubtedly one of the least effective ways to combat the spread of this virus. We urge the authorities of the countries concerned not to go after the wrong target and instead to ensure that journalists are able to operate freely without fear of reprisals at a time when the public needs their reporting more than ever.”

 

Attacking the freedom to inform can have particularly serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis. A recent RSF press release described how the Chinese authorities tried to suppress or minimize information about the coronavirus at the start of the outbreak, thereby allowing it to wreak much more havoc. If China’s journalists and media had been allowed to work freely, thousands of lives would undoubtedly have been spared and the epidemic might not have become a worldwide pandemic.