African journalists and political actors on fundamental freedoms have expressed concern that freedom of expression and access to information have come under attack by governments across the region in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a joint Statement signed Friday by Journalists and Political actors from Botswana, Malawi and South Africa , urges governments to respond to the pandemic, numerous restrictions are placed on citizens; limiting their movements and ability to assemble.
It reads in addition, journalists face arbitrary arrests due to efforts to curb misinformation and disinformation.
The Statement noted that Private media houses struggle to access information from government particularly due to social distancing measures used as an excuse to limit the number of media houses allowed to attend government press conferences.
“In many instances, only state media has been granted access to such events. Limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for journalists is putting their lives at risk. The growing restrictions to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedoms are concerning as these are the primary tools with which citizens receive and share information, engage with their governments and hold authorities accountable,” it stated
The Statement added that as key stakeholders of democracy, they undersigned Southern African journalists and political actors, come together to call upon governments to make a commitment to ensure that adequate resources are put in place for journalists to conduct their work efficiently and without interference.
“We recommend governments consider providing adequate protective clothing for journalists to protect themselves from the corona virus while on duty, as they would for any essential services providers. We condemn the use of state resources to censor the media when media actors are critical of government policies,” It pointed out.
It warned that political actors should not compromise media ethics by using their political resources to bribe journalists.
The Journalist and Political call for the observation of media ethics and professionalism amongst media practitioners.
“We recognize that it was essential for journalists to self-regulate, we are not oblivious to the fact that the growing social media trend and the era of 24-hour news channels has increased pressure on journalists to produce content at lightning speed,” the Statement hinted.
It indicated that there is a high risk of information consumed by the public becoming highly compromised in the absence of a regulatory authority for the media.
They believed that governments need to ensure there was openness in society for the functionality of independent oversight bodies and fair legal systems to hold the media accountable when media houses make a mistake.
The agreed that, “We recognize that the justice system could sometimes leave room for injustices towards the masses; including journalists, due to use of draconian laws.
They called upon states to align their domestic laws with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and other international legal instruments that they have ratified.
They said legal frameworks need to recognize journalists as important stakeholders in democracy and good governance.
“The media acts as a bridge between the government and citizens by ensuring that information on governance processes is channeled down to the people accurately and timely while ensuring that the government is held accountable by fighting corruption,” it said.
Journalists and Political actors called upon governments and all stakeholders of democracy to ensure that citizens have access to accurate and timely information.
They said Citizens should be free to voice their concerns and contribute to government’s decision-making processes.
“Citizens need access to information that is accurate and up to date to make informed decisions.
Further, information should be in all national languages,” they feel.
Currently, a low internet porosity rate by most African citizens, high costs of data and or poor access to electricity are restricting poorer citizens from accessing the internet or the news, hence affecting their access to information.
Governments and other relevant stakeholders should purposefully and vigilantly ensure that all such citizens are not left behind, in the true spirit of commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.
The journalists are from government and private media houses.