Fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and access to information have come under attack by governments across the region in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.As governments respond to the pandemic,numerous restrictions are placed on citizens; limiting their movements and ability to assemble. In addition, journalists face arbitrary arrests due to efforts to curb misinformation and disinformation.Private media houses struggle to access information from government particularly due to social distancing measures used as an excuse to limit the number of media houses allowed to attend government press conferences. In many instances, only state media has been granted access to such events.Limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE)for journalists is putting their lives at risk.

The growing restrictions to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedoms are concerning as these are the primary tools with which citizens receive and share information, engage with their governments and hold authorities accountable.As key stakeholders of democracy, we the undersigned Southern African journalists and political actors, come together to call upon governments to make a commitment to ensure that adequate resources are put in place for journalists to conduct their work efficiently and without interference.We recommend that governments consider providing adequate protective clothing for journalists to protect themselves from the corona virus while on duty, as they would for any essential services providers. We condemn the use of state resources to censor the media when media actors are critical of government policies. Political actors should not compromise media ethics by using their political resources to bribe journalists. In the same vein, we call for the observation of media ethics and professionalism amongst media practitioners.

While we recognize that it is essential for journalists to self-regulate, we are not oblivious to the fact that the growing social media trend and the era of 24-hour news channels has increased pressure on journalists to produce content at lightning speed. There is a high risk of information consumed by the public becoming highly compromised in the absence of a regulatory authority for the media. Governments need to ensure there is an openness in society for the functionality of independent oversight bodies and fair legal systems to hold the media accountable when media houses make a mistake. We also recognize that the justice system can sometimes leave room for injustices towards the masses; including journalists, due to use of draconian laws. Therefore, we call upon states to align their domestic laws with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and other international legal instruments that they have ratified. Legal frameworks need to recognize journalists as important stakeholders in democracy and good governance. The media acts as a bridge between the government and citizens by ensuring that information on governance processes is channeled down to the people accurately and timely while also ensuring that the government is held accountable by fighting corruption.

Finally, we call upon governments and all stakeholders of democracy to ensure that citizens have access to accurate (and timely) information. Citizens should be free to voice their concerns and contribute to government’s decision-making processes. Citizens need access to information that is accurate and up to date to make informed decisions. Further, information should be in all national languages. Currently, a low internet porosity rate by most African citizens, high costs of data and or poor access to electricity are restricting poorer citizens from accessing the internet or the news, hence affecting their access to information. Government and other relevant stakeholders should purposefully and vigilantly ensure that all such citizens are not left behind, in the true spirit of commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.

Signed: Carolyn Mkandawire – Malawi News Agency

Blessings Banda – United Democratic Front, Malawi

Thatayotlhe Maiketso – The Parrot News Online, Botswana

Roy Nkosi – Malawi News Agency

Stella Asani–People’s Party – Malawi

Happy Chabuka – Zodiak Broadcasting, Malawi

Tione Andsen – Malawi News Agency

Sadie McKenzie – Botswana Centre for Public Integrity

Bobby Kabango – Nation Publication Ltd, Malawi

Fanny Kondowe–Radio ABC, Malawi

Godfrey Maotcha – Montfort Media, Malawi

Nono Kgafela-Mokoka–Botswana Congress Party

Robert Letsatsi- Botswana Watch Organization

Gregory Gondwe – Media and Communication Consultant

Mallick Mnela – iHub Online, Malawi

Jo-Ann Downs – Former African Christian Democratic Party, South Africa (in her own capacity)

Helen Pushie Manyeneng- Alliance for Progressives, Botswana

Justice Motlhabani- Journalist and Spokesperson Botswana Patriotic Front

Nicholas Mokwena – Senior Journalist Botswana Guardian


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