Media is essential and an emergency service in response to COVID-19

Communication is aid and the right information at the right time saves lives! Media is now more than ever becoming both an essential and emergency service in addition to being critical in response to COVID-19

Speaking at the closing of the 4 webinar series aimed at capacitating the East African journalists on their safety in reporting COVID-19, UNESCO Addis Ababa Office Director and  Representative to Ethiopia, Ms Ana Elisa Santana Afonso, stressed on the organisation’s Priority Africa’s focus on media’s essential role in providing citizens with verified and fact-checked information on COVID-19. “In fact, journalism is indeed an essential service and journalists are to be considered as essential workers”, stressed Ms Santana Afonso. 

Organised by the East African Editors Forum (EAEF), the 4 webinars series raised concerns on COVID-19 pandemic exacerbation, to the level of threats facing not only the media and its survival but also journalists whose sources of livelihood are now under serious threat. Participants raised the alarm on the negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced some media houses in the region to close shop, and others to scale down operations through workforce reduction or downsizing. Furthermore, reduced salaries and reduced investment in some typologies of journalism, particularly investigative journalism is compromising journalism independence and reducing its capacity to advance journalism without fear or favour.

Organised as part of the 2020 World Press Freedom Day celebration, the Eastern African journalists have made several recommendations. Some of the recommendations propose measures and solidarity that need to be put in place, to sustain independent journalism in the region. They further called on the private sector, government and media development partners to consider journalism as an essential service by providing necessary cushioning of the media from the negative COVID-19 effects.

“Journalists are mostly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but least aware of health issues. They work under pressure, sometimes turn to alcoholism, to enable them cope with the job demands in order to bring the citizens the right information” Said Pamela Makotsi Sittoni, the Executive Editor of the Nation Media Group while speaking at the opening of the EAEF 4th Webinar series. 

The need for solidarity among journalists across the region and the continent, to enable them to speak with a common voice on matters affecting journalism and journalists was emphasised. Furthermore, the role of duty bearers including the Regional Economic Commissions (RECs) and the East Africa Community (EAC) were highlighted as key, in helping break the barriers between the media and the heads of state in the region, particularly in countries where journalists’ freedom in accessing government records and reporting on COVID-19 cases has been a challenge. 

Furthermore, even though journalism is an essential service, especially in regard to health reporting, the participants noted with deep concerns that media houses lack resources to invest in investigative journalism. Moreover, the levels of corruption in regard to the misuse of health-related funds, abuse of journalists’ human rights and other malpractices, continue during this COVID-19 Pandemic. EAEF, therefore, recommended the establishment of an Eastern Africa Investigative Journalism Grant Fund to support investigative journalism in the region. This was termed as critical to the advancement of the role of the media and journalism through targeted training, support to research and safety protection measures. 

UNESCO and the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA) joined efforts in supporting the EAEF in organising the 4 webinars and the ongoing East Africa Journalism Review Special Edition- on protecting journalism. Speaking at the closing of the 4th webinar, Cheryl Odhiambo representing the OSIEA pledged further support to enhance access to information in the region through capacity building on digital rights. UNESCO pledged further technical support through a partnership with AccessNow to facilitate follow-up capacity building on cybersecurity, digital rights and understanding of the media laws that guarantee media independence in the region.

Some of the follow-up actions to the 4 webinars include the ongoing Eastern Africa Journalism Review special edition on protecting journalism to further assess the issues identified during the training and the recommendations made to be reinforced by current data.

 About the Multi-Donor Programme for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP)

 The MDP serves to further strengthen UNESCO’s work at a global, regional, and national levels, by channeling funds towards emerging priorities and the most pressing needs to achieve its mandate on freedom of expression. It enables UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector to address complex issues through the design and implementation of holistic medium and long-term interventions at national, regional and global levels. The clear advantage of this mechanism is that it allows UNESCO and its partners to achieve greater impact and sustainability, whilst reducing fragmentation of activities in the same field.

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