The Eastern Africa Editors Forum – Virtual discussion: World Press Freedom Day

By Lucas Barasa

The challenges facing the media and its sustainability following the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic dominated the Eastern Africa Editors Forum to mark the World Press Freedom Day.

The Kenya Editors’ Guild backed by UNESCO and Open Society Initiative in Eastern Africa on Sunday hosted a virtual discussion bringing together editors from the region to brainstorm on the issues and suggest way forward.

The editors decried tough economic times facing the media following dwindling advertising revenues, low newspaper circulation, massive job losses and salary cuts.

The safety of journalists covering Covid-19, lack of adequate protective gear and journalism financing also featured.

The editors vouched for more innovative ways to navigate the challenges including promotion of digital journalism, enterprise journalism, reduced overdependence on advertising and embracing of technology for future work after the pandemic.

The meeting that attracted more than 60 participants was moderated by KEG executive committee member George Nyabuga who is also a University of Nairobi lecturer.

Dr Nyabuga emphasized on need of independent journalism and freedom of the press as per this year’s global theme of World Press Freedom Day of “journalism without fear or favour.”

KEG President Churchill Otieno who thanked colleagues in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia, UNESCO and Open Society East Africa for enabling the virtual meeting, called for accountability in reporting, verification and giving those who do not have voices some voice.

“We must build structures and grow a fraternity of professionals who care about accountability reporting,” Mr Otieno said.

The KEG President also rooted for removal of repugnant laws hurting the media and finding ways to address media economic and digital disruption and journalism funding.

Ms Lydia Gachungi, Regional Advisor on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO hailed the organization of the virtual meeting and called regular regional editors’ forums.

She vouched for South Sudan to be admitted to the forum.

She promised more support to ensure safety of journalists covering Covid-19. The editors’ forum is to be also assisted to build a hub for journalists containing all information concerning the disease.

“Freedom of inform is essential,” Ms Gachungi said.

Her organization, she said, was working with a Community radio in Ethiopia to boost digital information network.

She pushed for strengthening of editors’ forum, media development, freedom of expression and information.

UNESCO is also working on ‘contextualizing’ a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Covid-19 for easy understanding.

Kenya Editors’ Guild council member Macharia Gaitho was happy that newspapers were now focusing on long human-interest features.

“So much is happening around the sporting world in terms of what individual sportsmen, teams and athletes are doing during this enforced lockdown,” Mr Gaitho said.

He disagreed with Uganda Editors’ Guild chairman Daniel Kalinaki’s proposals that sports journalists should move to other beats due to little action on the field.

“It’s time for sports journalists to push for their stories to be published on front page instead of always being on back page,” Mr Gaitho added.

Mr Deodatus Balile, Chairperson of Tanzania Editors’ Forum faulted laws undermining freedom of expression in the region.

He called on journalists to fight for their rights.

Mr Zekarias Sintayehu, who is Editor-in-Chief-The Reporter, Ethiopia said a weekly newspaper in the country and TV station stopped operations due to effects of Covid-19.

However, unlike in Kenya and other countries, media organisations were yet to start laying off employees or reducing salaries.

ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru also celebrated the role journalists play.

In a tweet on Sunday, Mr Mucheru noted the press plays the role of being society’s mirror.

“This role is the one that’s important for the development of society and man. We must protect this mirror and the mirror holders. The mirror holder must also never alter its perspective. Happy World Press Freedom Day!” Mr Mucheru said.