COVID-19 and Press Freedom: Media Support Organisations in West Africa Share Perspectives

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a lot of studies, reports, and conversations on the devastating impact of the pandemic on news media organisations in West Africa. Quite a lot have been learnt about the collapse of media organisations in Mauritania and Guinea; significant media job losses and pay cuts in Nigeria; abuses against journalists in nearly all countries in the region; and in fact, what some have even called a “media apocalypse” in the region.

So far, not much has been heard and learnt about the impact of the pandemic on organisations on the ground that work to advance press freedom and support media development – the organisations at the national level that build the capacity of journalists, defend journalists when there are abuses against them, and advocate against laws that undermine press freedom. Indeed, reviving and sustaining news media organisations around the world will, to some extent, depend on the effectiveness and sustainability of such national media support organisations.

It is in the context of this that the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) convened a meeting of heads of the leading press freedom groups in the various countries in West Africa to discuss the impact of the pandemic on their work. The meeting also discussed effective ways of minimising the effects on their operations going forward.

Participants:

Organisations that participated in the meeting were : l’Association Guinéenne des éditeurs de la Presse Indépendante (AGEPI), Guinea; Regroupement de la Presse Mauritanienne (RPM), Mauritania; l’Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, l’Ethique et de la Déontologie (OLPED), Côte d’Ivoire; The Gambia Press Union (GPU); International Press Centre (lPC), Nigeria; l’Observatoire de la Déontologie et de l’Ethique dans les Medias (ODEM), Benin; Media Reform Coordinating Group – Sierra Leone (MRCG-SL); Sindicato De Jornalistas e Tecnicos De Comunicacao Social Guinea Bissau (SINJOTECS); Union des Journalistes Indépendants du Togo (UJIT); National de Presse Norbert Zongo (CNP-NZ), Burkina Faso; Centre for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), Liberia; la Maison de la Presse (MP), Mali; l’Observatoire Nigérien Indépendant des Médias pour l’Ethique et la Déontologie (ONIMED), Niger; Associação de Jornalistas de Cabo Verde (AJOC), Cape Verde; Syndicat des Professionnels de l’Information et de la Communication du Sénégal

Challenges/Impact

The deliberations and experiences shared at the meeting revealed that just as many news media organisations faced financial challenges during the pandemic, media support organisations have also suffered from financial constraints and other operational challenges.

Across the region, these media support organisations have had to endure challenges of high data cost to stay connected especially during lockdowns. Also, given that nearly all the media support organisations in the region exist and operate with project funding (rather than core or general operating funding) payment of salaries of staff became challenging when projects had to be put on hold. Besides, it became almost impossible for them to support news media organisations and journalists in distress during the period.

“As a freedom of expression and media support organisation, journalists and the media look up to us for support. So when the organisations are in distress, it has a devastating impact on the media landscape,” Dr. Francis Sowa, National Coordinator of the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) in Sierra Leone explained during the regional meeting.

Other challenges highlighted include:

  • Disruption of planned activities including in-person engagements with donor deadlines
  • Unstable internet connectivity
  • Difficulty in accessing information from state agencies at a time when access to information was critical to advocacy and public education efforts especially in countering fake news and mis/disinformation
  • A lot of fake news and mis/disinformation had to be countered
  • Challenges of working remotely and using apps that were not familiar.

Recommendations

Together, the regional freedom of expression organisations – who are also national partner organisations of the MFWA – called for stronger regional collaboration (among partners in the region and with international partners) and networking to re-enforce each other’s work on press freedom and freedom of expression advocacy.

They also stressed the need for more collaborative research to understand and highlight the peculiar challenges of media development, press freedom, and freedom of expression; especially studies on media sustainability, safety of journalists, and independent journalism in the region.