African Media and Press Freedom in the Time of Covid-19

Zimbabwean, Kenyan and Tanzanian Journalists Speak Out

The video-conference by Kenya, Tanzanian and Zimbabwean journalists on May 18, 2020 on media issues and Covid-19 was timely, useful and insightful. It covered a wide range of issues, including how the media was covering the Coronavirus, the opportunities, limitations and the outlook going forward. Journalists indicted that media coverage of Covid-19 is largely concentrated on events, updates and statistics. They said the reportage is driven by information coming from the official channels, governments and their departments, less from independent sources of information. The running is how many people have been tested, infected and died from the virus. The focus is on governments interventions to mitigate the pandemic. There has been less focus on the story behind the story, which is mainly the devastating and far-reaching impact and implications of the Coronavirus. 

The pandemic – wreaking havoc across the planet with virulent impact and devastating consequences - has caused the greatest global disruption many of have seen in a generation and even in a lifetime. Its impact and implications have been sweeping across political, economic and social spheres of life. Some say its impact will be felt as far and wide as World War II, far worse in scope and scale than the 2008 global financial crisis which now appears like a mere ripple in terms of severity and ramifications compared to the pandemic. The virus and its aftermath will reorder our political, social and economic structures and lives, creating a new global order in some respects. It create a new normal in many different ways. Without a doubt, Covid-19 will for better or worse affect politics and governance, leadership style and approach, civil and political liberties and electoral issues. It will also affect in how economies are structured and run, governments' role in the economy and business, how businesses are run and how they cope under pressure, how they evolve and deal with change management, and indeed how they adapt for survival. Further, the virus will inevitably have influence on how humans leverage technology to execute tasks with less physical proximity. Already the virus has led to global travel bans and restrictions, shaken up the financial markets, and caused functions and conference cancellations around the world, with a huge impact on sports and music, that is cultural events. Yet there isn't much in-depth and insightful reporting in the virus. Reporters cited lack of access to information, government's top-down communication approach on corona, which had reduced media and the people to mere recipients of official statements and narratives. Hence, linear perspectives in communication, official lines, and understanding of the virus.

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Journalists also cited lack of resources, that money, logistics and technological tools to cover the story, the biggest in a generation, effectively. Media companies are already struggling to survive, but the pandemic has exacerbated their financial positions and made them more worried about sustainable more than coverage of the story. Some media groups are already taking measures to cut salaries, retrenchment and downsize their operations, making them incapable to cover the story effectively. The other limitations include lack of personal protection equipment and fear if the virus itself. Journalists also raised the issue of media capture, that some media organisations are owned by politicians or proprietors aligned to partisan political interests. This, they said, is compromising the professional, ethical and balanced coverage of the issue. The issue if editorial independence came under scrutiny significantly during the debate. It was found that media organisations are increasingly compromising their editorial positions to survive. This has become a major threat to independent editorial and quality coverage of the issue. The issue of threats to media sustainability due to corona also came up, with growing fears that some organisations will not survive the devastating economic and financial impact of the pandemic. To mitigate the impact of the virus, media groups need to adapt or die. They must adjust to the new realities, which means changing their models and operational dynamics to survive. Journalists need to network and engage in training courses and processes to retool, sharpen their understanding of issues and adjust to changing environments to survive and remain relevant. Collaborations need to be actively promoted and sustained to for this happen.