Azarrah Karrim kept her camera rolling as the officer raised his gun; he paused as she screamed “I’m media!” then shot at her. Reporting in Johannesburg, she had pressed record as police fired at people to disperse them on the first day of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown. The rubber bullet narrowly missed her.
Around the world governments are seeking to prevent the coronavirus spreading by expanding their authority to control and monitor people, limiting freedom of movement and assembly. Such measures might be necessary for the general public, but journalists play an essential role in documenting application of these new powers — and helping us think through this extraordinary moment.
On the day that police shot at Karrim, photographer Tracey Adam held her phone steady, documenting a Cape Town officer’s approach and his demands for her to stop filming. His chest quickly fills the frame, obscuring the group of officers and a form on the ground behind, but the audio is clear. “I have the right to take video,” Adam protests. “No, no, no, no,” the officer retorts. His hand reaches out and the scene is smothered in a fleshy hue.
Karrim and Adam’s footage offers a window into enforcement of South Africa’s Covid-19 response and the challenges journalists have faced in reporting amid new government restrictions.
Broadcast reporter Azad Shakur had his belongings seized at a checkpoint for allegedly violating Iraq’s curfew; Kenyan cameraperson Peter Wainaina was assaulted by an officer clearing the streets, and in India police assaulted at least four reporters covering the nationwide lockdown.
Press freedom should be defended at all times, but at this time its importance should be more apparent. A glance at history reminds us how governments use crises to seize powers that would otherwise not easily be granted, how reluctantly those powers are relinquished and how selective framing and curated public memory can be leveraged for political gain.
Control of information grants power to shape how the public understands the crisis; how we imbue it with meaning. The pandemic has already triggered new rules in Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines that may be used to curb critical reporting, and South Africa’s disaster management regulations raise similar press freedom concerns.
Certain coronavirus related keywords are censored in China. Journalists in Belarus, Ethiopia, Niger, and Venezuela have been arrested following Covid-19 coverage. In the middle of a crisis, it may be difficult to imagine how a historical pattern will repeat itself, what it will look like, how it will sound or feel. It may also be difficult to determine how to react or what should be done. We are, after all, stuck in our homes with our walls as our blinders.
If your house has windows, perhaps they look out at the street, a courtyard or, as is often the case in New York City, another wall. Regardless, from inside looking out your window on the world has narrowed. And that is why we so desperately need journalists. In this moment, we need them more than ever to be our extra windows onto how coronavirus responses are functioning.
Even as we temporarily give up certain freedoms, we cannot give up press freedom. The attacks on Karrim and Adam, like those on media in other countries over the past month, are attacks on the public’s right to make informed decisions about the pandemic today, what it means, and what comes next. DM