Behind the story:

Health risks for journalists reporting on Covid-19

Behind every article lies another story – that of the journalist who wrote it. Agnes von Unge reflects on journalists contracting Covid-19 while reporting

Behind every published article lies another story – that of the individual journalist who wrote it. In many places and countries the publication of an article may include great risks and obstacles for journalists: from physical attacks and detainment authorized by law enforcement to threats-induced self-censorship and also murder – censorship in its gravest form. Even before the pandemic safety of journalists was a critical issue, but since the outbreak of the corona virus journalists face even greater peril.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with 43-year old Mekonnen Teshome Tollera, editor of New Business Ethiopia and a freelance journalist living and working in Addis Ababa. I learned about journalists’ susceptibility to contracting the virus while reporting on the biggest story of a generation. Mekonnen believes that the physical safety of journalists is an issue that should be more candidly highlighted in the media – and I agree.

He argued that “as we know the critical roles of journalists in activating the community, first we need to address journalists’ security”. Meanwhile, I thought about how my own security is connected to that of journalists. How many times – especially during this pandemic – do I not make decisions for myself and my surroundings based on the accurate information received through the media? Imagine, if the surrounding context did not allow for that information to reach the wider society, or if it would endanger the journalist providing the information.

In 2019, Ethiopia was recognised for its support to improve on parameters for a free press during the political transition following the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Previously known as one of Africa’s most repressive countries in relation to the safety of journalists, Ethiopia was praised for releasing imprisoned journalists and lifting bans on media outlets. Still, there is a need to continue the work of improving the safety of journalists in Ethiopia: “Journalists encounter various challenges while reporting”, Mekonnen told me, and continued, “these challenges are related to access to information, harassment by government bodies, powerful business people and even fellow media workers – because of differences in political and social views, lack of democracy and transparency”.

In Ethiopia, as in other parts of the world, it seems as if the pandemic compounded some already challenging working conditions for journalists. Mekonnen flags how “nobody talks about the safety and health of journalists, especially in remote areas there is a need to highlight safety issues. While I am familiar with the ongoing struggle to keep local media outlets alive and available in remote areas, I can only imagine that the safety conditions of journalists in remote areas are not always well known.”

The pandemic begs journalists to include their own stories as part of their pandemic reporting and Mekonnen is initiating a journalistic project with exactly this purpose: to shed light on the journalists working in the frontline of the pandemic.

He will be interviewing journalists who have recovered from Covid-19 and focus on the issue of impunity and the fact that security forces have restricted and denied journalists the right to move in Ethiopia, with state and federal governments looking the other way.

Just like global cooperation is crucial in response to a global pandemic, this project offers a possibility to cooperate with journalists in other regional areas.

With an aim of creating synergies and cross-cutting collaborations between journalists world-wide, Mekonnen recently pitched his project at a webinar with select IMS partners.

As Mekonnen highlighted during his pitch: “Safety of journalists and impunity is a global issue, hence, it is a global story”.

I let the last words echo in my head: A global story, a global story, a global story… it reverberates across borders and encompasses each individual that provides societies with valid information and the multiple voices of journalists who’s work merits recognising. To this end, an article about the journalist, who wrote the article in today’s newspaper is a start.

Agnes von Unge is an IMS intern at the Global Response Department.