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Virus crisis piles pressure on African media

Joel Olatunde Agoi and AFP Africa bureaus
Two Nigerian newspapers have had sudden cutbacks, as media outlets across Africa struggle during the coronavirus crunch

Collapsing revenues, rising layoffs: the coronavirus crisis is battering media outlets across Africa that were already struggling for cash and often facing pressure from hostile authorities.

The news of cutbacks was sudden and painful for journalists at two of Nigeria's most popular independent newspapers when bosses from The Punch and Vanguard made their announcements last month.

"It was a rude shock for me because I didn't do anything wrong to warrant such treatment," one Punch veteran told AFP, asking not to be named as he was still owed a "token" payoff.

The redundancies were just the latest to hit Nigeria's press -- one of the most vibrant on the continent -- as the economic fallout from the pandemic has sent sales and advertising income plunging.

"What is happening in Nigeria is not peculiar to us. The whole world is feeling the impact," said Qasim Akinreti, the chairman of the Lagos Union of Journalists.

"For us in the Nigerian media, the story is the same -- we have lost hundreds of jobs in the past four months."

- Calls for state aid -

In Kenya some media houses slashed wages by up to half, in Uganda a leading weekly halted printing, and in Namibia hours have been reduced and redundancy schemes fast-tracked.

The speed and severity of the current crunch has sparked calls for government bailouts -- with private papers in Cameroon even holding a "dead press" day to denounce a lack of action.

Authorities in some countries have heeded the pleas for help.

Kenya's national regulator on Friday unveiled what it called a "historic" fund worth just under $1 million to help some 150 broadcasters weather the storm.

"This challenge of COVID-19 has squeezed life from television and radio stations," said David Omwoyo, the head of the Media Council of Kenya.

Officials from Nigeria's journalist union said it had appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to provide emergency aid to distressed media.

But there are fears that state aid would only increase political interference in sectors around Africa that are already often dominated by powerful vested interests.

"The government has been harassing the media. Several journalists are facing trials for frivolous offences," University of Lagos lecturer Olubunmi Ajibade said of the situation in Nigeria.

"Collecting bailout funds from government at this time will compromise their independence and freedom."

- 'Disseminate propaganda' -

Just as the spread of the virus has caused revenues to dwindle, it has also posed unprecedented logistical challenges to media outlets.

While the official figures -- more than 170,000 infections and 4,700 deaths across the continent -- have risen slower than elsewhere on the planet, governments have still imposed tough restrictions.

Lockdowns have hampered reporting, social distancing has forced journalists to work remotely with poor internet or electricity supplies, and protective equipment has added new costs.

On the streets there have been reports of security forces harassing journalists trying to do their work.

In Ghana -- one of West Africa's most open democracies -- soldiers enforcing virus restrictions "assaulted" two reporters in April, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

A raft of countries including South Africa have introduced legislation criminalising the spreading of disinformation about the pandemic.

Authorities insist the measures are needed to tackle a flood of dangerous falsehoods surrounding the virus.

But media professionals say journalists are already trying to do the job of combatting "fake news" -- and such laws could be used to muzzle them.

Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, who heads the Lesotho branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said two journalists in the tiny kingdom were warned under new rules for spreading misinformation -- only for it to turn out that their work was accurate.

The government of Andry Rajoelina in Madagascar has pushed its control even further and mandated outlets carry all official information about the pandemic.

"The regime is taking advantage of this requisition to disseminate propaganda," said Nadia Raolimanalina, who runs MBS television and two newspapers on the Indian Ocean island nation.

"Messages on COVID-19 no longer occupy an important place in the president's speeches, which must be broadcast in their entirety."

She complained that journalists could not investigate key issues as sources feared "going to prison for spreading false information".

"The official information is incomplete and the state has concealed the real information which risks tarnishing its image."