COVID-19 brews storm for journalists


By Nyasha Mutena

Joshua Mavhura (not his real name) is a documentary journalist and a freelance news reporter for international news agencies.

In a world sorrounded by screens, the proliferation of techno utopians has inspired and accorded documentary journalists like Mavhura, a platform to open minds, help to shape future thoughts and actions, to change the world! Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mavhura’s rigorous documentaries were flourishing. So compelling is his work that viewers sought it in pursuit of the unvarnished truth. Mavhura was churning out masterpieces before COVID-19 cut in.

Everyone is adapting to the new normal inorder to survive. Lest the fate of the legendary dinosaurs becomes their fate.

Baring his soul, Mavhura said;
“I had a number of documentaries I was working on in Manicaland and another one which was commencing in April 2020 in Sofala provinces in Mozambique which have since been postponed and later cancelled.

“In news production, I do feature stories mostly but since the onset of COVID-19 its now difficult because of the nature of the enermy we are at war with. Personal safety restricts me from movement and that is how I am missing out on good money”.

Mavhura decried his remuneration on hold pending projects completion and/or publication. Payment upon publication rather than delivery is standard practice for 66% of freelance journalists.

Mavhura’s experience is not different from other journalists in the country. The economy of Zimbabwe is mainly made of tertiary industry which makes up to 60% of the total GDP as of 2017 making it the second biggest informal economy with a share score of 60.6%.

Although the conditions are not very rosy in any given sector, freelance journalists are experiencing the worst time. Their conditions are tragic. The 3 main reasons for their impoverishment are; the cancellation of events, the non-payment of work already delivered and the reduced rates paid by newspapers too as they also adjust to little revenues.

The situation is even worse for journalists who own news websites. They, too rely on advertising revenue, transport reimbursements from organizations that seek their coverage and sponsored articles. Yet there are no safety nets for them.

Government ensured that they are among frontline workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine whilst companies like Nyaradzo Group availed Personal Protective Equipment to safeguard journalists from COVID-19 infection.

In an interview with the Voice News Agency, MAZ programmes manager Nigel Kabila Nyamutumbu said;

“Journalists are not among those that are receiving risk allowances or being cushioned when they contract COVID-19 and this has unfortunately led to incapacitation and deaths of media personnel. Other challenges relate to the operating environment and professional challenges to comprehensively cover this rather technical and scientific topic.

“Their safety on the front lines of reporting the COVID-19 pandemic has been compromised in terms of physical safety, professional and legal impingements. On physical safety, the media sector has been operating on stringent budgets to the extent that journalists have been exposed due to the minimal provision of personal protective equipment (PPEs). Beyond this lack of equipment, there hasn’t been a structured and coordinated testing framework for journalists putting themselves, colleagues, sources and families at risk”.

Media Institute of Southern Africa, (MISA) Zimbabwe Director Tabani Moyo said;

“As MISA we are already designing a program aimed at proffering support on post traumatic experiences because of the level of anxiety that comes with the pandemic, changing nature of work and sometimes losing livelihoods. There are high chances of nervous system breakdown and psychological challenges so we are designing a program that will bring in specialists who can then engage colleagues as they find their path to recovery”.

Moyo mentioned that since January 2021, over 16 journalists reached out to MISA, revealing that they have tested positive for COVID-19. Over 5 journalists died since the spread of the second wave (end of 2020).

MAZ and MISA Zimbabwe facilitated the provision of PPEs for frontline journalists.

According to a survey carried out by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) between 26-28 April 2020, two-thirds of staff journalists have also suffered pay cuts, lost revenue, job losses, cancelled commissions or worsening working conditions. It also revealed that nearly every freelance journalist lost revenue or work opportunities due to COVID-19.

More than half of all journalists suffered from stress and anxiety, more than a quarter lacked essential equipment to enable them to work safely from home, while one in four lacked any protective equipment to work in the field yet more than a third shifted their focus to covering COVID-19 related stories.

The IFJ is the world’s largest organisation of professional journalists representing 600,000 journalists in 146 countries.

Going forward, a report by the Guardian revealed that at the end of the pandemic, only those outlets owned by large corporations and rich individuals will survive, a possibility that could defenestrate the gains already made towards achieving freedom of the press.

In a televised address to mark the 2020 World Press Freedom Day, Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa highlighted the need to safeguard the future of the media sector post COVID-19 as well as to strengthen its watchdog role.