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Coronavirus: What about the safety of journalists on the frontlines?

  • Published at 05:28 pm April 12th, 2020
Web-Microphone-Media-Television-Zakir
Representational photo portraying Bangladeshi news channels Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Calls for proper steps to limit exposure of reporters to public gatherings, five cases reported

Covid-19, one of the deadliest pandemics in history, will be remembered through reports filed by journalists across the world, many of whom are putting their health and, for some, lives at risk to cover it.

Considered essential workers in most countries, journalists play an important role reporting on the impact of the virus and dispelling disinformation. And it goes without saying, stories cannot be really covered very well from isolation or self-quarantine. 

Since the epidemic unfolded in Bangladesh, journalists have been on the frontlines, just like healthcare workers, law enforcement and other emergency service workers.

However, the safety of journalists is becoming a major concern as five confirmed cases of Dhaka-based media workers infected with Covid-19 have been reported until Sunday.

On April 3, Dhaka-based Independent TV said one of its camerapersons tested positive. 

Since then, four reporters — three working for TV stations, Deepto TV, ATN News and Jamuna TV, and the fourth working with a newspaper — have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

All of these organisations said they have sent staff who came in contact with the infected persons, into home quarantine.

Journalist leaders have expressed concerns over the development and slammed media outlets for not ensuring proper safety equipment for those working on the ground.

Staff members send into home quarantine

Deepto TV authorities said they have asked 30 staff members, including journalists, to self quarantine. 

A source at the television station said that the coronavirus-infected reporter’s condition was stable as of Sunday. 

“The reporter had been covering stories on the field with complete personal protection equipment provided by the organization” said the source. 

In a statement, ATN News said on Sunday that one of its reporters tested positive on Saturday, which prompted the station to ask 20 of its staff members to go on home quarantine. 

The infected reporter had a fever but was not having breathing problems, said the statement, adding: “He’s now in self-isolation at his home and receiving treatment.”

On Friday, police locked down a building in the capital’s Shahjahanpur after one of its residents, a reporter for Bangla daily ‘Bangladesher Khabor,’ was diagnosed with Covid-19.

Hours after one of Jamuna TV’s reporters was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Thursday, the station asked 34 of its staff , including journalists, to remain in home  isolation.

Meanwhile, Independent TV said on Saturday that the isolation period of its 47 staff members, who were told to isolate themselves after a colleague tested positive, has ended/

In a Facebook post, the station’s CEO, M Shamsur Rahman, said the staffer who went on isolation was doing fine but the infected cameraperson was still in institutional quarantine.

On April 3, Dhaka-based Independent TV disclosed that one of its camerapersons was diagnosed with Covid-19 the previous day.

The TV station asked 47 of its staffers to self-isolate after the test result of the cameraperson came back positive, who completed the isolation period on Saturday.

It’s Chief Executive M Shamsur Rahman said on Saturday that the infected cameraperson was still in institutional quarantine.

“He does not have fever anymore or a sore throat. But only a mild dry cough,” Rahman said in a Facebook post.

Exposure to public gathering remains a concern

Many media outlets in Dhaka have asked newsroom staff to work from home, but it’s clear that it brought no respite for those who have to be on the ground to cover the coronavirus pandemic.

A photojournalist at a leading Bangla national said reporters there were exempted from covering crowded events, but still the chances of getting infected ran deep.  

“Who knows the guy standing next to me during my assignment is not Covid-19 positive?” he said, asking not to be named.

Meanwhile, others say organisations are ensuring little or no safety measures.

“They are only giving masks and hand sanitizers, which are just two components of PPE [personal protection equipment]”, said Rashad Ahamad, a staff reporter with the English daily New Age. 

Ahmad, one of the many journalists reporting on the outbreak from the field, says it is only natural that reporters have to work in the face of risks.

“But I am concerned about the poor safety equipment for journalists,” he added.

A staffer at Independent TV, asking not to be named, said the staff there had been provided with adequate safety equipment.   

“I’m satisfied with protective gear like masks and gloves provided to us,” said the cameraperson of the TV station.

Advised to take precautions but what about protective gears?

Journalist leaders slammed media outlets for not ensuring proper safety equipment and not providing necessary facilities when the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded.

In a statement on Saturday, the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists said media workers are now panicking after fellow journalists have been infected. 

“Bangladesh reported its first cases on March 8, but did media organisations prepare themselves to ensure safety for newsmen covering this outbreak?” asks Sajjad Alam Khan Topu, general secretary of the Dhaka Union of Journalists. 

Several media outlets do not have proper or enough PPEs for their staff, he said, adding: “Many are not even providing pick up and drop off services or transport for reporters covering facts on the ground.”

Reaz Chowdhury, general secretary of Dhaka Reporters’ Unity (DRU), echoed Topu’s remarks.

“At least,15 [DRU] members have, so far, informed us of having Covid-19-like symptoms. Fortunately, their tests came back negative,” he said. 

From the beginning of April, Bangladesh is seeing a sharp rise in Covid-19 infection, with the single-day highest recorded Sunday, with 139 cases. 

The death toll now stands at 34 after health authorities reported four more deaths on Sunday.

In a statement on Thursday, Transparency International Bangladesh has urged the government and media owners to ensure health protection as well as professional safety of journalists covering the coronavirus crisis.

On April 7, the government was served a legal notice asking it to provide safety equipment and special incentives to media workers amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 25, the High Court said it hoped authorities concerned would provide PPE to journalists and law enforcement on the frontlines. 

In a meeting with representatives of Broadcast Journalists’ Centre on Saturday, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud called for media owners to ensure the safety of reporters. 

“The government is working to find ways to ensure safety for journalists who are reporting the coronavirus crisis with the risk of being infected,” he said.

International organizations, including the Global Investigative Journalists Network and Committee to Protect Journalists have issued advice for reporters covering the outbreak.  

And media organisations in Bangladesh have only advised their journalists to take precautions and practice social distancing, but have done little to provide adequate protective gear to limit reporters’ exposure to public gatherings.  

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