By Aurelia Mbokazi
The Covid-19 pandemic has been used as pretext by some governments to crack down on dissent, resulting in the deterioration of press freedom and working conditions for journalists the world over.
This was a warning shared with journalists during the 2020 edition of the annual Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture, which commemorates the Mozambican journalist who was assassinated in 2000. The virtual lecture, which took place on Thursday, 22 October, during the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020), focused on the state of press freedom and rights of journalists in four African countries where journalists are under attack.
Opening the lecture, AIJC2020 conference convener, Professor Anton Harber, spoke fondly of Cardoso – whose academic career and activism began at Wits University – his passion for media freedom and for fostering democracy in the Southern Africa region.
Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Angela Quintal, who served as the facilitator of the lecture, said the CPJ, whose role is to defend the rights of journalists working in repressive countries, said Covid-19 had worsened the situation of many journalists.
“I head the Africa (CPJ) programme and I can tell you we have never been busier, not only because of Covid-19 and the fact that it is being used as a pretext by some governments to crack down on dissent, but conditions for press freedom the world over have arguably deteriorated,” lamented Quintal, further revealing that CPJ has a team of about 40 experts around the world who are supported by a network of correspondents to protect journalists so they can report the news safely without fear of reprisal.
Leading the evening’s speakers was Lina Attalah, co-founder and publisher of a news website, Mada Masr from Egypt, a country that has been highlighted by the CPJ as topping the list of jailing journalists in Africa. For her role as an investigative journalist, Attalah had been detained in May and has had to face continued intimidation for doing her job. She took the attendees on a journey, sharing sentiments of what influenced her to become a journalist.
“I live in a country where, despite restricted political practice, journalism at different points in time was a space through which we could expose violations, shed light on issues barely seen, give alternative narratives to issues distorted by powerful structures, raise questions of public interest and open sight of imagination. Despite the fact that I have not lived in a place that values the essence of independent journalism I was lucky to live through moments where the margins for such journalism were possible and existed in the shadows of economic opening which allowed private enterprises to engage in media projects which meant journalism isn’t solely practiced in the terrain of the state,” explained Attalah. She further gave an analogy of journalists as double agents whose “translation labour as a form of smuggling of politics from sphere to sphere, of possibility, of unpopular unwanted and un-thought ideas, especially in eco-systems that made the circulation of such ideas hard.”
Despite the many hardships faced by journalists, Attalah encouraged them to keep going and commit themselves to uncovering the truth.
“We know that it’s a thorny journey filled with pressure, threats and fatigue, but it is also a very stimulating journey marked by the possibility of reporting, writing and innovating at a time when it’s very hard to do so,” she added.
Tanzanian author, journalist and editor, Ansbert Ngurumo, who is a fierce critic of President John Magafuli, joined the lecture from Sweden, where he is exiled. He described the attacks on journalists in Tanzania in the past five years as the worst ever, adding that Magafuli “has turned journalism into a crime”. This distabilisation, he explained, had adversely affected the quality of journalism in that country.
“Magafuli’s regime has made authentic journalism impossible in Tanzania, giving rise to cheerleading and propaganda, which compromise the quality of journalism,” said Ngurumo, further revealing that he owed his life to good samaritans within the journalism fraternity who came to his rescue at a time when his life was threatened by his government.
He called on the international journalism fraternity to support independent journalism in Tanzania.
“Without independent and authentic journalism, Tanzania will become a breeding ground for grand scale corruption. Only independent and authentic journalism can salvage the once stable and peaceful nation from plunging into the deep abyss of dictatorship, which will not bode well for the future of Southern Africa, and Africa at large,” warned Ngurumo.
Zimbabwean investigative journalist and founder of ZimLive news website, Mduduzi Mathathu, opened up about his arrest and the intimidation and threats to his family following his expose of Covid-19 corruption, which fingered allies of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. His investigation into a $60 million Covid-19 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) contract awarded to the president’s family friend, Delish Nguwaya, led to his home being raided and members of his family, arrested.
“The true intentions of the raid on my house on July 30 was never any political threat that I pose to the government of Zimbabwe which is well armed and has demonstrated repeatedly that it will use those arms to stay in power. Having reviewed all the information available to me, I am convinced that they came after me for exposing corruption going all the way up to President Mnangagwa’s doorstep,” said Mathathu.
He revealed that between March and October, 2020, 30 journalists had been arrested or beaten by the security forces in Zimbabwe.
“Its been a terrible year for journalists in Zimbabwe. There’s a government in charge that pays lip service to corruption and human rights. Driven by their paranoia and aversion to critical journalism, they resort to using security forces to silence not just us journalists but also political dissidents.
“In a cruel way, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the indefinite lockdown imposed since March, has allowed them to use those emergency regulations to narrow the space even further,” added Mathathu.
Due to technical challenges resulting from the lecture being hosted online, Mozambican journalist Matias Guente was unable to present as scheduled.
The speakers also used the Carlos Cardoso lecture to highlight the plight of the four jailed Iwacu media journalists from Burundi who were arrested for breaching state security a year ago and Tanzanian journalist, Azory Gwanda, who mysteriously disappeared in 2017.
Watch the full lecture here