- COVID-19 calls for unity of purpose, not needless muscle flexing
Despite clear instructions by President Muhammadu Buhari and his Minister of Information, that journalists be allowed to move around by showing their ID cards, there have been reported cases of overzealous security operatives obstructing the media in their legitimate work.
In one case, security agents halted a newspaper distribution van. In the same reported incident, an irate soldier allegedly knifed one of the van’s tyres, to effectively ground it. In another, a set of security operatives assaulted a photojournalist and damaged the reporter’s tools. Her offence? She took photographs of a hotel, with patrons still inside, shut down to mitigate spread of COVID-19.
The Guild of Editors’ observation on the harassment of media workers is apt: “It should be noted that the media is a strategic partner in national affairs, with the constitutional mandate of providing information to the populace. The body of Editors hereby restates that media personnel are rendering essential services; and journalists should be commended for carrying out their Constitutional mandate of sourcing stories and monitoring compliance with government directives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, instead of being harassed.”
Admittedly, crisis management at a time of emergency that currently faces Nigeria and other countries is likely to have hiccups, especially in a developing democracy. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the first week of lockdown, police overzealousness has been reported, especially in relation to journalists whose professional activities include being in the public space, to observe what they need, to report about compliance with lockdown.
Further, this is a moment of tension in the country, as in most countries under the weight of COVID-19. It is also a time when all professionals, including security operatives, need to be more sensitive to the needs of others. Brutalizing or harassing reporters and distributors of daily newspapers at a time, that performance of their duty puts their personal safety at greater risk than before, is not expected from those charged to protect national security, public order and personal safety.
Three of the most relevant agencies, at a time of such national emergency spawned by COVID-19, are health professionals, reporters, and security agents. It is, therefore, counterproductive for the security group to be at logger heads with the others, at a time that full cooperation and civility are expected from everybody.
Undoubtedly at a time like this, hospital staff, reporters and law enforcement operatives are working under extreme stress that includes danger of these workers contracting coronavirus infection while on duty. Each group should, therefore, understand this aspect of managing a crisis of this magnitude, in a country with fragile infrastructure and weak institutions.
This period of national stress calls for more civility between reporters and security agents. Just as the Guild of Editors has observed, governments, at the federal and state levels, need to make security staff understand the role of the media in an emergency. While the bulk of the people stay home, the media must freely move around to gather and distribute news and valuable information for the benefit of the public.
Special orientation may not be out of place for security staff charged with supervising compliance with stay-home and social distancing orders. There can be no better time for law enforcers to appreciate the importance of discretion. It is through the efforts of journalists that the public can access the information they need about a disease that threatens everybody, hence the clear announcement by the government that reporters with ID cards be given free movement, like other providers of essential services.
So, harassing journalists or health workers under the excuse of enforcing lockdown is bound to be counterproductive, at a time that all hands are expected to be on deck. Any form of barbaric response to other public servants is unjustifiable. Patience on the part of security operatives is more crucial during emergencies than at any other time.
It’s time, therefore, for all stakeholders to have their eyes on the ball: restoration of normalcy to the country, rather than needless bickering or muscle flexing that can complicate national efforts to cope with the unforeseen crisis of Covid-19.