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Open Society Foundation:Supporting solidarity with journalists

Death, arrest and attack, these are some of the challenges facing journalists on the continent and around the world. In South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the closure of several media houses and left hundreds of journalists without jobs. We need to protect the rights and livelihoods of journalists given their critical role on the frontline.

I’m not very active on social media, but this week, as I scanned my Twitter timeline, I saw that there were more posts about journalists under threat than usual. First, I noticed the numerous updates, messages and support for Zimbawean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who’d been arrested on 20 July and charged with inciting public violence. Chin’ono had reported on irregularities in Covid-19 procurement processes, which resulted in the sacking of Zimbabwe’s Health Minister earlier this month. In addition, Chin’ono had shared calls for participation in protests against corruption planned for 31 July.

On Wednesday, Chin’ono was escorted into court in chains. He was not asked to enter a plea and his bail application was postponed by 24 hours – ostensibly due to a Covid-19 curfew. Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the Transform Zimbabwe political party and organiser of the protests, appeared alongside Chin’ono and had also had his bail decision postponed. On Thursday, Ngarivhume’s bail request was denied, while Chin’ono’s bail decision was deferred until Friday.

Maria Ressa from the Philippines is another journalist facing spurious court charges. Ressa is a founder and the CEO of Philippines news site Rappler, known for its unflinching scrutiny of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. Amongst her accolades, Ressa was one of four journalists collectively called “the guardians of truth”, who were named by Time Magazine as Person of the Year in 2018. Ressa’s current court case is not her first – last month she was convicted of libel by a Manilla court and sentenced to a six-year prison term. She is currently out on bail and has pled not guilty to this latest charge of tax evasion.

Just last week, I read about the death of Mohamed Mounir, an Egyptian journalist who’d been arrested on 15 June 2015 and charged with spreading fake news, joining a terrorist organisation and misusing social media. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the accusation of spreading fake news stemmed from Mounir’s “openly critical stance towards the [Egyptian] government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Mounir worked for Al Jazeera, which is banned in Egypt, while the charges of misusing social media related to sharing a surveillance video on Facebook of armed policemen visiting his home a few days before his arrest.

Mounir, who was 65-years old, contracted Covid-19 in Cairo’s Tora Prison, or possibly when he was taken to Tora Linman Hospital, where many coronavirus cases are treated. Mounir was released from prison on 2 July and died days later on 13 July – from what Palestinian presenter Farah al-Barqawi called “murder by coronavirus”. Mounir was not the only Egyptian journalist to be jailed and denied due legal process. At the time of his death, the IFJ estimated that there were at least 37 journalists in Egypt’s jails.

Then, there’s the case of Paul Nthoba, the South African journalist who fled to Lesotho in May after being assaulted by police in Ficksburg, Free State in May after he filmed them enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown and the awful experience of News24 journalist Jenni Evans who had rocks thrown at her car and her phone stolen when she was covering protests in Khayelitsha this week.

A free press is a critical bulwark against autocracy. We must protect journalists’ rights to safety and security. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven that the media is an essential service – at a time when their livelihoods are being eroded most rapidly.

South Africa’s independent media has been in peril for a number of years due to dwindling advertising revenue and the dominance of platforms like Google and Facebook. For many media workers, Covid-19 has been the final knell.

Earlier this month, Kate Skinner, Executive Director of SANEF – the South African National Editors’ Forum, spoke about the more than 700 journalists who’d lost their jobs as a direct result of Covid-19. When we heard about the fund that SANEF had started to provide assistance to those affected, we felt compelled to help. We are pleased that OSF-SA has been able to contribute R500 000 to the SANEF Media Relief Fund as part of our Covid-19 response.

We’ve also begun conversations with our other media partners to find out how Covid-19 has impacted their work. This is part of the listening campaign we embarked on this month as we finalise our new strategy.

Over four meetings and with approximately 200 attendees, I’ve personally learned so much about the work you do, the communities you serve and the difference you seek to make in the world. I appreciate the emails and insights you’ve provided as we think about the changes we need and want to see in South Africa and the world in the next few years and into the future.

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