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Commemorations, setbacks, and reflections on a COVID and post-COVID world (Demo)

A different World Press Freedom Day

Without doubt this year’s World Press Freedom Day was different from any other. Under the banner Without Fear or Favour, it was marked by mostly virtual events and conversations that continued throughout the month – on topics ranging in diversity from media sustainability to online harassment to the safety of journalists.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role of the media, the paradoxical fragility of the industry has also been exposed.

This was endorsed by the chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum, Mahlatse Mahlase, during the webinar on the Corona Crisis and the financial impact on journalism on 3 May.

She kicked off the conversation by observing: “Journalism is a critical weapon in the war against the global pandemic . . . We have seen audience numbers rise significantly since the start of pandemic, clearly showing that news media is more important than ever. But we are also finding that news media is under severe threat.”

Former editor of the Mail and Guardian, Khadija Patel, described how their reflections and discussions “on the need for the public to reassert their ownership of the media and the importance of showing vulnerability to the South African public” prompted them to make a public appeal.

“I was overcome with emotion at the response we received from so many of our colleagues”, she added.

But as she also acknowledged, their [Mail and Guardian] position, was not unique, “we are seeing these stories happening, these experiences recorded, right around the world actually.”

As the world mulls over a post COVID-19 world, Patel mentioned what most media outlets are pondering: “how do we ensure that we at least get to December 2020 with our newsrooms intact while we continue telling the story. .  .  We know the economy will worsen in the coming months and what we have to really figure out right now, is how to make this work between now and the end of the year.”

In their WPFD message the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) commemorated WPFD by sharing recommendations on how to move forward in defending media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information to mark WPFD 2020.

In their statement, the West African Journalists Association (WAJA) stressed the need for journalists to discard “disinformation, conspiracy theories, myths and prophecies about the disease and help people by giving them facts about the virus.

Revised ACHPR Declaration

A webinar session on 4 May looked at how the revised Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, will translate into access to information practices around the continent – such as internet shutdowns, universal internet access, data protection and media freedom.

Advocate Pansy Tlakula, former ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, highlighted the inclusion of the requirement by states to proactively disclose information in the public interest. Other new additions include online access to information and the protection of privacy and protection of personal information with specific emphasis on surveillance.

Media freedom under threat

Print and online thought pieces published throughout May highlighted the growing threats against media freedom and freedom of expression on the African continent. The curtailment of media freedom in conversations and articles was highlighted by media professionals, activists, legal experts, and advocacy and lobbying organisations. Some of these conversations continued as experts gathered together online via webinars and Twitter conversations. The conversations and the writings touched on health and safety, protection from the state, curbing the “infodemic” of polluted information, the impact of COVID-19 regulations on freedom of speech and the continued threats, arrests, detentions and attacks on the media along with the impending closure of media outlets.

In its debut webinar, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) looked at the Safety of journalists and COVID-19 in Anglophone West Africa. The discussion focused on how governments can be held accountable in responding to the crisis and utilising resources meant for tackling the crisis. There was a focus on how journalists cope with the trauma of putting themselves at risk while they grapple with COVID-19 related violence as well. The panellists concluded by suggesting a number of actions that could be taken to halt the abuses against journalists in the region.

Journalists under threat in Nigeria

One of the more challenging media environments to currently work in is Nigeria.

As the government becomes increasingly intolerant of criticism, journalists are being kidnapped, abducted, summoned, detained, assaulted and arrested on seemingly spurious charges. State governors and other leaders abuse their power to instruct police to arbitrarily arrest journalists while the Department of State Services (DSS) ignore legal rulings and detain media practitioners.

In urging the government to foster a safer working environment for journalists and media practitioners, executive director of IPC, Lanre Arogundade pointed out that his organisation had documented at least 22 press freedom violations in a few weeks.

Sports journalist Kufre Carter was detained for over a month, and both his family and his lawyer were denied access to him by DSS [Department of State Services] personnel. Carter is charged with conspiracy and defamation for “causing [the article] to be published”. The article in question featured an audio of a call between two people criticising the Akwa Ibom State Health Commissioner Dominic Ukpong’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Towards the end of April Media Rights Agenda and IPC called for the removal of Ebonyi’s governor David Umahi. The two media advocacy organisations petitioned the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to sanction Umahi for misconduct and breach of office following attacks on journalists. This was after the governor pushed for the arrest of Chijioke Agwu, and then imposed a lifetime ban on Agwu and Peter Okutu from attending events at State House. The governor eventually apologised to the two journalists and reversed the ban.

In Nigeria’s Delta region, journalists Michael Ikeogwu and Mathew Omonigho were assaulted and detained by State Environment Task Force officers, after asking officers why they were forcing residents to participate in a clean up exercise during a COVID-19 lockdown. The journalists were released after 45 minutes, on the instruction of a superior Environment Task Force official,

Police in Kwara State detained the wife and siblings of broadcast journalist Rotimi Joyalemi until he handed himself in. He has been charged with violation of the Cybercrime Act of 2015 and allegedly inciting “annoyance” and “hatred” by sharing a WhatsApp audio of Joyalemi reciting a poem critical of Information Minister Lai Mohammed that went viral.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reporting on the abduction of Bayelsa blogger Saint Meinpamo Onitsha from his home on 9 May, stated that “the agents interrogated Onitsha about his sources for two reports he had published, and threatened him with criminal prosecution on false news charges.” At a press conference on 12 May, Onitsha apologised for his outlet’s reporting and denied that he had been abducted. He was then released without being charged.

On the other hand, police acted swiftly and successfully in the kidnapping of two women journalists in two separate incidents. In the first kidnapping on 6 May of radio journalist Chinyenye Iwuoha, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) put out a statement urging authorities to urgently find Iwuoha and secure her release. She was released by her captors a day later. Various media also reported the kidnapping of assistant manager of news and current affairs, at NTA Channel 6, Chinyere Okoye on 24 May, though details are still sketchy. Members of the State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police tactical units worked to secure her release.

Victories and setbacks for LGBTQI+ rights

Despite the theme Breaking the Silence for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) on 17 May, the expression of sexual identity continues to be suppressed in sub Saharan Africa, where 27 out of 46 countries criminalise consensual adult same-sex conduct.


The LGTBQI+ community have struggled through regulations and lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, from being stigmatised, blamed and even targeted. According to Kenyan Andrew Maina, quoted in HIVOS News: “Stigmatization and discrimination are increasing. LGBTQI+ people are accused of causing this pandemic.”

A minor victory was the release of 19 LGBTQI+ people in Uganda one day after IDAHOT. They were initially arrested in March on the pretext that they had violated lockdown regulations imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by seeking shelter in a group home for the homeless. Lawyers from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum were only allowed access to the detained 19 after their successful High Court challenge.


Towards the end of April, a major setback in Kenya was the High Court decision to uphold the ban on Wanuri Kahiu’s groundbreaking lesbian romance movie Rafiki. According to The Star, Justice Makau ruled that “the ban of the award-winning film did not in any way violate artistic freedom of expression and instead it [the ban] protected society from moral decay.”

In Zambia, a gay couple were released from prison as part of an amnesty for convicted prisoners, to mark Africa Freedom Day. In 2019, Japhet Chataba and Steven Samba had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for homosexuality, in an incident which caused a diplomatic row between Zambia and the USA, leading to the recall of diplomat Daniel Foote.

Africa Day 

Africa Day – an annual reminder of the progress the continent has made since colonialism and apartheid – was commemorated by a concert featuring a star-studded lineup from the continent. Supported by the World Food Programme and UNICEF, the proceeds of the Africa Day Benefit Concert at Home was used for food and medical support for children and families in Africa affected by the pandemic.


Presented by YouTube and ViacomCBS Networks Africa in partnership with Idris Elba, the concert featured a special appearance from comedian Trevor Noah and performances by African legends Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ismael Lo, as well as by newer artists including Stonebwoy, Burna Boy, Bebe Cool, Tiwa Savage, Sho Madjozi, Davido, AKA and Tiwa Savage, Drizilik, James Bks, Wavy Boy Smith and more. The intention behind the concert was to unite to commemorate Africa Day and provide hope and inspiration during COVID-19.

The R2K used the significance of Africa Day to spotlight the restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression by African governments, “instead of celebrating Africa’s independence, freedom and liberation from colonial imperialists.”

In her Africa Day piece, Sisonke Msimang says it’s time for change.

She talks about why she dislikes Africa Day and says: “In rejecting Africa Day as a special day, I have accepted that Africa is not the place Big Men have told us it is. And so my dismissal is not cynical. My refusal to be told when to clap and when to smile and when to open my mouth to eat and when to dance in the blazing sun and how to wrap my wrapper beautifully so that the face of the Big Man who adorns it spreads lovingly across my backside – all of this is a beautiful and considered resistance.”

In Brief

Malawi’s presidential rerun is slated for 23 June. This is after the High Court annulled the 2019 results, citing glaring election irregularities such as the use of corrective ink on ballot sheets. The fresh election will pit incumbent President Peter Arthur Mutharika against opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera.

In May, Google celebrated Zimbabwe’s iconic national instrument – the mbira – with an interactive Google doodle, which coincided with the country’s Culture Week. The doodle details how the mbira instrument is made and features popular mbira songs.

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