Journalists on the frontline of Covid-era accountability: we are not ‘one’ fragile planet

Published on 12 June 2020

Journalists covering Covid-19 face multiple perils, not least verbal and physical threats from the governments they are holding to account on how they are handling the pandemic. In this blog, Prof Ayo Ojebode, University of Ibadan, shares reflections on the nature of fragility and the important role of journalists in holding power-holders to account, no matter how fragile a state is.

Journalists protest against rising violence during march in Mexico
Journalists protest against rising violence during march in Mexico, August 2010. Credit, Knight Foundation (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a fascinating piece on accountability and empowerment in a times of Covid-19, Naomi Hossain brings us face-to-face with the global descent of erstwhile strong and stable states into a situation of fragility. In her view, the expansive use of emergency powers to declare and enforce lockdowns in nations where freedom and human rights had been the ultimate deity is a testament to the overall fragility of nations. This way she confronts us with the inadequacy of the existing definitions of fragility which generally refer to struggling states of Africa and Latin America. She posits that Covid-19 has turned us all into one fragile planet. Indeed, recent events in the United States, such as journalists being pepper-sprayed, beaten or shot at as they cover the protests that followed George Floyd’s death, serve to clearly expose the fragility underlying the stability we had thought we knew.

Why journalists matter in accountability discourses

Interestingly, our studies and projects on accountability and empowerment, undertaken as part of the A4EA Research Programme, have focused largely on women(-led) groups, unruly protesters, food rioters, and civil society organisations pressuring government for a shift of power, accountability and transparency. We have overlooked one group of people whose primary profession is to hold government accountable. Journalists. Ordinarily, they are as indispensable as they are vulnerable, and the emergency powers being wielded by governments in response to Covid-19 have made them even more so.

One of the oldest critical responsibilities of the press is that they must “present a full account of the day’s events in contexts that give them meaning” (Siebert, Peterson & Schramm, 1956:112). In times of crises, such as the present moment, journalists performing this role can irritate those in power and this can endanger them.

Across the world, journalists covering Covid-19 have been asking important questions holding authorities to account and, in the process, often irritated their governments. Questions about the efficacy of drinking or injecting disinfectants as cure for the virus or the importance of testing when death rates continue to increase worsened an already bad relationship between President Trump and American journalists. Government’s refusal to give Covid-19 updates is at the centre of journalists’ questions in Tanzania while in Nigeria, journalists question the excesses of security agents enforcing lockdown and the contradictions between the lockdown directives of the president and those of the police boss.

In response to these questions, governments are making new laws and evoking old ones which are capable of silencing journalists. Reporters Without Borders found, in sub-Sahara Africa, 69 press freedom assaults within four weeks in relation to Covid-19 coverage. In Bangladesh, four journalists are facing possible death sentences over their Covid-19 reports. Covid-19 has significantly worsened the repression of journalists.

As well as this state sanctioned repression, journalists are also themselves becoming infected by the virus. In search of news and evidence, many a journalist are exposing themselves to risk. They are also experiencing pay cuts and job losses as organisations experience a sharp drop in advertising revenues.

For journalists globally, the cost of promoting accountability appears to be rather high.

Journalists covering Covid-19: there and here

As one takes in a panoramic view of the Covid-era experiences of journalists globally, Naomi’s “fragile planet” submission becomes indeed compelling. Yet, if one compares the experiences of journalists in different settings as they report Covid-19, that submission invites a careful revisit.

Case 1 – USA: On May 11, President Donald Trump seemed to lose his cool with White House correspondent of CBS News, Weijia Jiang, for asking why the president seemed to be proud of the high speed and number of US coronavirus tests but silent on the growing number of coronavirus deaths. The President criticised that as a “nasty question” and directed the Chinese-American reporter to “ask China” about the deaths in the United States. A bedraggled Jiang insisted that her question was not nasty but the president would not give an answer. He, in fact, terminated the press briefing at that point and walked away. Many described that as an insult to not only Weijia Jiang but to female journalists of colour and to the American media in general.

Case 2 – Myanmar:  On May 13, Zaw Ye Htet, editor of Dae Pyaw, an online news outlet reported that a COVID-19 related death had happened in Karen State. The report was later declared incorrect and the writer was quickly arrested. His trial was fast-tracked and judgement was delivered within a week. He is to spend two years in jail for writing a report that could, according to the authorities, cause “public panic”. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, lawmakers in Myanmar are working on additional legislation to criminalise reporting that is capable of causing public panic.

Case 3 – Rwanda: According to Human Rights Watch, on April 3, television journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga (and several other journalists) reported extreme human rights abuse by soldiers sent to enforce lockdown rules in poor neighbourhoods. Their reports documented extreme sexual violence against women by the soldiers. Dieudonné Niyonsenga and others were picked up on April 15 for violating lockdown rules. As at the time of writing this, nothing has been heard of their release.

Is fragility slippery or simply relative?

The three cases summed up above may give the impression of a planet under the duress of the abuse of power. One could say, from a president shouting down a journalist, to a nation jailing a journalist and another detaining journalists indefinitely without trial, our world is groaning under the weight of power abuse. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a golden opportunity for the expression of ruthlessness against especially those holding power holders accountable.

That said, it would be unfair to lump all these experiences together into one manifestation of fragility. The differences in their levels of brutality makes this indefensible. If we asked Zaw Ye Htet or Dieudonné Niyonsenga, they would clearly have told us that even the most vicious verbal attack is nothing compared with imprisonment or detention without trial. Equally, journalists experiencing job losses where there are reliable insurance or social welfare programmes are not experiencing Covid-era fragility in the same way as their counterparts in Nigeria or Bangladesh are.

This is not to downplay the impact of repeated public insults or bullying as a tool to silent journalists when they seek to hold government accountable. Rather, it is to suggest that a universal definition of harassment or attack and of the fragility which enables this, would mask important details and the scale of repression in different contexts.

So, while it is possible for the American president speak offensively towards journalists, he can hardly do much worse than that. In Nigeria, and indeed in most extreme fragile states, politicians do much worse. In May, 2020, a Nigerian journalist spent 17 days in detention and was then charged for producing and circulating on WhatsApp an audio capable of causing “annoyance, insult, hatred and ill will to the current Honourable Minister of Information …”. The Minister repeatedly denied ordering his arrest. Even an ordinary local government chairman in Nigeria ordered the arrest and detention of a journalist, and the order was dutifully executed by the security officials.

It is not one fragile planet and Covid-19 is not a leveller

So, one major insight we can derive from the Covid-19 pandemic is that as stable states become fragile, fragile ones sink into deeper fragility. Covid-19 is not a leveller.

Not only this, as governments amass more authoritarian powers, certain frontline professions will get blunter brunt than others. In such contexts, its essential to take into account international and intra-national variations, and nuance our definitions of fragility accordingly.

In a practical sense, one clear lesson from this pandemic is that journalists’ unions and organisations seeking to protect journalists should understand that powerholders often seize crisis moments to expand (and abuse) their power. Preparing journalists to cover crises therefore, should entail much more than procuring the right equipment and training them on how to use it. It should also involve developing journalists’ sensitivity to political hawks and thinking creatively about how to ask challenging questions without putting themselves at risk.

On a positive note, I would say the fact that journalists are being bullied and/or hounded means that independent journalism still matters when it comes to holding powerholders to account especially in crisis situations, whatever the level of a state’s fragility.

Thanks to Tomi Ojebode (WomenLife Magazine) for the argumentation that helped to clarify these thoughts. 

Ayobami Ojebode is Professor of Applied Communication & Head, Department of Communication and Language Arts at the University of Ibadan. He is a contributor to the IDS-led Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research programme. Follow Ayo on Twitter

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