Karima’s death spotlights Covid risks for journalists

The shocking death of the fearless veteran journalist, advocate for human rights, social justice and media freedom, Karima Brown, has turned the spotlight on the risks journalists and photographers run during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) is calling for journalists to be overtly categorised as essential workers who qualify for vaccination at the earliest possible stage of Phase 2.

As frontline workers, journalists and photographers have continued to relay critical news, including information about COVID-19, to the population since the first lockdown in March last year. 

Representative bodies across the world have successfully lobbied for journalists to be moved to the top of the line for vaccination after healthcare workers.

Most recently, over 2,000 journalists in Zimbabwe were included on the COVID-19 vaccination priority list alongside 60,000 frontline health workers who are to be vaccinated before the general public.

“The important thing about journalists being part of the vaccination campaign is first and foremost, they carry the message to a lot of people,” said Dr. Edwin Sibanda, director of the Health Services Department, at the launch of the initiative in Bulawayo. 

The National Federation of Journalists of Brazil (FENAJ), National Association of Journalists of Peru (ANP) and the Central Board of Directors of the Uruguayan Press Association (APU) recently urged their governments to consider journalists as frontline workers.

“The inclusion of journalists among the priority groups is justified by the fact that similarly to other professions, such as health professionals, teachers, police or fire-fighters, media workers are obliged to put themselves at risk, guaranteeing every citizen access to reliable and public interest information,” the FENAJ said.

In a press release issued on 4 March this year, Secretary-General of the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) in Geneva, Blaise Lempen, stated: “It is essential that journalists can have rapid access to vaccination so that they can do their work in the field without endangering their lives.”

PEC has been keeping a ‘corona-ticker’ since early last year. The latest figures show that at least 864 journalists have died of Covid-19 in 69 countries. Most affected countries are: Peru 108, Brazil 107, Mexico 88, India 56, Italy 48, Bangladesh 44, USA 44, Ecuador 42, Colombia 37, United Kingdom 28, Pakistan 23, Turkey 21, Panama 16, Bolivia 14, Russia 14, Ukraine 14, Spain 13. “The total number of victims is certainly higher,” wrote PEC, “as the cause of death of journalists is sometimes not specified or their death not announced. In some countries, there is no reliable information.”

Legal counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) in the USA have filed a request with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices asking that journalists who have regular, direct contact with the public, particularly visual journalists, be “expressly included in the phase of the COVID-19 vaccine that includes the essential and critical infrastructure workforce.”

For visual journalists, social distancing and authentic coverage of day-to-day news are incompatible.  The NPPA’s advisory committee noted: “Visual journalists cannot work from home, and have put their health and lives at risk on a daily basis to cover both the COVID-19 pandemic and other matters of public concern, including matters critical to the health and safety of the public and critical to our democracy. These journalists must work in the conditions they find — regardless of the risk. While others have the option to walk away from large crowds, or to avoid members of the public that don’t follow CDC health guidelines, visual journalists repeatedly put their own safety at risk to document what is occurring and inform their communities, large and small.”

Whether they’re reporting on Covid, potholes, taxi wars or gender-based violence, journalists are instrumental in enabling citizens make informed decisions.

Responding to the South African National Editors’ Forum’s (SANEF) recent appeal, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “I would see no problem whatsoever with journalists also being considered amongst those who should get a vaccine at an early stage because [they] are frontline workers,” he said. (Daily Maverick, 4 March 2021).

Safrea urges Minister Zweli Mkhize to explicitly include journalists in this category in vaccine rollout plans and to make this public.

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