Covid-19 : Journalists’ Double Tragedy

As the world marks World Press Freedom Day, RoGGKenya recognises the challenges that journalists are facing while delivering critical information during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sometimes journalists have to visit Covid-19 isolation facilities, and interview people in crowded places. This exposes them to the disease and some have died. Others face job losses and harassment by police and other authorities. John Njiru, shares his experience with RoGGKenya.

Since the media reported the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya on March 13, 2020, more than 70 journalists have tested positive and at least five have been killed by the disease.

According to data from the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), there are 4,277 accredited journalists in Kenya.

Such has been the direct toll of the pandemic on the media in Kenya. It was a positive move by the Kenya Union of Journalists’ (KUJ) secretary general Eric Oduor to plead with the government to include journalists in the priority list for vaccination.

“In view of the loss of life and reports of over 20 journalists battling the virus in medical facilities across the country, we believe in considering journalists to be among the first beneficiaries of the first phase of the vaccination drive,” he said in April 2021.

I have covered the pandemic since the first case in Kenya was announced last year.

John Njiru, a Kenyan journalist who has covered the Covid-19 pandemic since it was first reported in Kenya. Picture: Courtesy

Later on March 26, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew (7pm-5am), exempting 13 groups of workers offering essential services, including journalists.

Job losses

But this is where our struggle began, and it still continues.

Much later on April 6, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced cessation of movement in and out of the Nairobi metropolitan area.

According to the World Bank Economic Update for Kenya, released in November 2020, these disruptions forced about two million more Kenyans into poverty.

The update confirmed that private sector firms were facing lower demand due to reduced consumption. This led to laying off workers. These cutbacks took away the media lifeline – advertising.

The only two listed media houses in Kenya – Nation Media Group and the Standard – barely made any profit.

Nation Media laid bare the devastation on April 28, 2021. The company announced a drastic decline in net profit for the year that ended December 31, 2020. Its net profit dropped to Ksh48 million compared to Ksh856 million registered in 2019, equivalent to a 94.4 per cent decline.

Last year, to stem its losses, the company laid off 100 employees from multiple departments, including journalists, from July 3.

Journalists who survived the purge were placed on reduced salary until December 31, 2020.

Standard Media Group, on the other hand, laid off 170 employees in March 2020 after rolling out a voluntary retirement scheme citing a tough regulatory and business environment.

The company later reported a Ksh306.1 million loss for the half-year which ended June 2020 compared to the Ksh19.3 million profit reported at the similar period in 2019.

“The Group’s performance during the first six months was affected by the difficult operating environment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry experienced a decline in advertising by most of the clients which led to a drop of revenues,” said Millicent Ng’etich, chairlady of the Standard Media Group board.

Other privately-owned media houses also faced losses, which were not announced to the public because this is not required by law.

Psychological support

Some laid off staff and put other employees on reduced salaries.

According to the media regulator Media Council of Kenya, at least 600 journalists had lost their jobs by August 2020.

In an interview with KTN News in August, MCK CEO David Omwoyo said the council has been instrumental in helping journalists during the Covid-19 period by offering psychological and financial support.

The Kenya Editors Guild – a subscription-based society for media editors – says journalists face the double danger of infection as frontline workers while being victims of the economic travails facing media houses.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kenya, media houses have been laying off journalists and support staff, and enforcing pay cuts,” Churchill Otieno, the president KEG said.

Otieno said some media houses were also taking advantage of Covid-19 to enforce layoffs and salary cuts.

“We are also distressed by the unprofessional methods employed by some, such as notifying employees by SMS, that they have been retrenched. Laying off workers is not a matter to be treated casually,” he said.

Resilience by journalists

Despite these bottlenecks, journalists continued to tirelessly cover the pandemic.

Consumption of media content actually increased significantly throughout the Covid-19 containment period, according to the Status of the Media Report 2020, released by MCK last December.

“The media played a critical role in disseminating information during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said MCK CEO David Omwoyo.

The survey also found that confidence in the media remains high at 97 percent, with television and radio being the most trusted sources of news standing at 74 percent in terms of popularity for both platforms. This was a slight increase for TV which ranked at 73 percent in 2019 and a drop for radio which was ranked at 84 percent in 2019.

Amid efforts to bring trusted news and information to Kenyans, journalists continue to face police brutality and are constantly denied important health information by government officials.

Violence against journalists

According to Article 19 Eastern Africa, a regional civil society group ,by August 2020, there had been at least 48 reports of violations against journalists reporting on the pandemic.

Twenty two of those cases occurred within six weeks after the first case of Covid-19 was reported. The violations included physical assault, arrests, verbal threats and online harassment.

Accessing information and reporting the pandemic is also increasingly being criminalized.

Public health regulations invoked to manage public health during the pandemic already give government authorities sweeping powers.

Other existing laws are used to silence individuals who question how the pandemic is being handled.

Article 19 says at least 10 journalists and digital content creators have been arrested or threatened with prosecution under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crime Act 2018. They were accused of publishing and spreading false and alarming information on social media about the new coronavirus.

At least 10 others were arrested under the Public Order Act, for allegedly flouting the curfew.

“Article 19 Eastern Africa is concerned that the government seems to be using the Covid-19 outbreak as an opportunity to further entrench repressive measures. There is a clear increase in surveillance and restrictions on free expression and information,” said Mugambi Kiai, Regional Director, Article 19 Eastern Africa.

John Ndavula, the head of the department of Communication Studies, at St Paul’s University, said the police have not effectively investigated threats and attacks against journalists.

No police prosecution

“There is no evidence to suggest that any police officer has been prosecuted for attacks or threats against journalists since the pandemic began,” he said.

Article 19 said its statistics come from direct reports filed by journalists and partners. It turned out more than 70 journalists tested positive for Covid-19 within the same six-month period (March-August).

In 2020, the Media Council of Kenya issued “Safety Measures For Media Covering The Covid-19 In Kenya guidelines.”

This was expected to prevent the worst for journalists – death. However, some of the journalists who contracted the virus have died.

The Kenya Union of Journalists said they are still compiling the numbers. March 2021 was the most deadly month when Kenya lost Lynne Kariuki (BBC), Reuben Githinji (The Star), Lorna Irungu (Gina Din Communications), Robin Njogu (Citizen), and Winnie Mukami (formerly NTV).

At that time, KUJ Secretary General Eric Oduor pleaded with the government to vaccinate journalists among other frontline workers.

Through MCK intervention, that request was acceded to. I got my jab on April 11, 2021. But the struggle continues.

What journalists should do:

  1. Profile media personalities who have died from Covid-19.
  1. Investigate through the vaccine deployment taskforce how many journalists have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
  1. Investigate through the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) how many cases of police brutality were reported during the pandemic.
  1. Analyse how Kenya is controlling the spread of the pandemic. Is the curfew effective or not?
  1. Compare the control measures in place to control the pandemic in Kenya with those in America, Europe and Asia .
  1. Probe the amount of money in loans and grants Kenya has received to respond to the pandemic since March 2020, and how those funds have been utilised.















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