As the COVID-19 virus spreads around the globe, it seems to be accompanied by another infectious ill: restricted press freedom. In fact, restricted press freedom may have contributed to COVID-19 resulting in a pandemic in the first place. Authorities in China, Europe, and the US withheld information that could have prevented such a drastic outbreak. These attempts to control information on COVID-19 at crucial moments contributed to the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19, and thereby the several hundred thousand deaths worldwide.
“Freedom of information and press freedom is key to contain a virus like COVID-19, any restriction on press freedom is an attack on public health,” said Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders and Chairperson of AfricanDefenders.
“African governments must provide media with accurate and complete information and support them in their reporting. The media is vital to keep the public informed during this pandemic. On World Press Freedom Day, let’s remember the importance of free media during a pandemic and beyond,” Shire continued.
COVID-19 related press freedom restrictions in Africa
Zambia has banned broadcaster PrimeTV on grounds of “public safety,” after it refused to air a government message. In Madagascar, RealTV’s transmitter and antenna were sabotaged just before airing an interview criticising the government’s public health measures. Liberia’s COVID-19 measures have forced several newspapers to suspend printing. In Somalia, authorities are holding a monopoly on COVID-19 related information, making it difficult for journalists to investigate. Reporting on lockdowns and curfews has led to numerous verbal or physical attacks on journalists. Several journalists have been arrested, because they challenged official COVID-19 related information or criticised the measures taken in response. The International Press Institute counts over 30 incidents of press freedom restrictions relating to COVID-19 in Africa.
The rise of press freedom restrictions is an alarming trend not just in relation to the ongoing pandemic. Freedom of expression and free media are fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hassan Shire warns:
“Emergency constraints on human rights usually outlast the emergency, so restrictions made during this pandemic are very likely to outlast COVID-19. A free press is democracy’s fourth pillar, it is democracy’s watchdog – restricting press freedom is a direct threat to democracy in Africa and worldwide.”
More than 15 African countries are set to hold elections in 2020 – the current crackdown on press freedom could severely impact these elections. We do not yet know how long Africa and the world will have to fight COVID-19, but continuous attacks on press freedom will leave deep marks in our society. On World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2020, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders will go live on Facebook and Twitter with a message about the importance of press freedom – and we urge you to do the same.
To join, please also go live on Facebook and/or Twitter with a video of yourself answering the question: Why is press freedom important for human rights? Please tag @DefendDefenders and @AfricaDefenders in your social media post, and we will help you to spread your word on our social media channels. Use the hashtag #PressFreedomNow. If you need more instructions, check out our social media kit.
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