COVID is still killing journalists around the world

Yesterday, I learned from Facebook that Wara Fana, a South African journalist, died recently after contracting covid-19. He was forty-five, and had two children. He wrote for national publications and founded Skawara News, a community newspaper in the Eastern Cape, his home province, that reports in the local Xhosa language. “I see myself as an activist in my community, as someone who’s promoting our identity, our culture, and I’m trying to promote democracy in its finest form,” he once said. “If I won the Pulitzer prize, I would make sure that every community in South Africa has got a newspaper in their own mother tongue.” He also chaired a group for independent publishers, and mentored young reporters. “He was frequently praised, even by politicians,” Thamsanqa Mbovane, a reporter for GroundUp, said. “Wara held his reporters to high standards. I remember him rightly scolding a young journalist who plagiarised an article. ‘You will get us all fired,’ he told the reporter. ‘Don’t do it again.’”

The news was particularly sad for me because I knew Wara. In 2018, I spent some time reporting in South Africa; one of the stories I worked on was about land reform, and a friend put me in touch with Wara, saying that he might be able to help. Wara instantly invited me to come and stay with him at his home in Qamata, the small Eastern Cape community where he was born, and I accepted. We met at a mall in East London, a city a couple of hours away, and drove to Qamata together; he told me pretty much everything I needed to know for my reporting on the drive, then spent the next few days introducing me to sources and the social life of the area. He sat with me while I interviewed a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, who spent time in the prison on Robben Island; we then walked up the road, under an immaculate starry sky, and drank beer in the front yard of another acquaintance, where Wara took a photo of me sitting on a giant, rusty tractor. One day, we went to pick up an edition of a national paper that, by chance, we were both slated to have stories in. We ate fries as we flicked through the pages. Wara’s story was in; mine wasn’t. (It appeared the following week.) In the car on the way back to East London, we argued about politics. Later, he called me, worried that I was upset. I wasn’t at all.

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Wara is not the only South African journalist to have died from covid over the past year or so. Last May, Lungile Tom, a cameraman with the broadcaster eNCA, died in a hospital; his employer described him as “a man with mischief in his eyes and joy in his heart.” In August, S’busiso Mseleku died at the age of fifty-nine; a longtime sports reporter and editor, he had recently quit his job to set up his own, eponymous platform. The same month, two staffers at the public South African Broadcasting Corporation—Tumelo Matloha, an editor, and Michael Conradie, a logistics manager—died. In March 2021, Karima Brown, a prominent print and TV journalist, died. In the eighties, Brown was active in the fight against apartheid as a supporter of the African National Congress, though she would later criticize the party after it came to power, as well as criticizing its rivals. In 2019, she won a court case against the party of Julius Malema, a firebrand left-wing politician, after he published Brown’s phone number on Twitter; his supporters threatened her with rape and death. “She had a big personality and didn’t shy away from voicing her opinions,” Norman Munzhelele, Brown’s colleague at eNCA, said. “Karima believed in hope.”

In many other countries, covid has hit the ranks of the press even harder. As I noted in late April, when the virus was spreading like wildfire in India, many reporters were among its victims—according to one database, an average of four Indian journalists died every day in the month of May; according to another, nearly five hundred Indian media workers have died of covid in total, many of them after contracting the virus while working. The Press Emblem Campaign, a media group based in Switzerland, recently reported that more than two hundred media workers died in Brazil between March 2020 and the end of last month; since then, at least eleven more have died, including Domingos Fraga of Record TV, Carlos Bueno de Moraes of Diário de Goiás, and Ednaldo Guedes, a journalist in the state of Paraíba, all of whom died last week. The Press Emblem Campaign believes that, all told, at least fifteen hundred reporters have succumbed to covid in seventy-seven different countries. In addition to India and Brazil, journalist deaths in Peru and Mexico have also surpassed one hundred, per the group’s figures.

Journalists, of course, are just people, vulnerable to the same viral waves—not to mention covid politics—as everyone else as they ebb and flow around the world. South Africa, for instance, is currently experiencing a rapid surge in covid cases; according to the BBC, the country has administered less than one covid dose per hundred members of the population, a figure ninety-four points lower than the US. But, if journalists in rapidly-normalizing countries need a particularly acute reminder of the ongoing ravages of the pandemic, and the global nature of the story, they need look no further than their colleagues worldwide.

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Wara had been active in responding to the pandemic. He was involved with a media relief fund administered by the South African National Editors’ Forum, helping distribute more than two million South African rands to journalists who were hit financially by covid. Last March, as societies around the world went into lockdown, Wara tried to call me to talk about the impact of covid in my area. I was busy and couldn’t reply; I said we should talk soon, though we never did. I wish we had. I messaged with Wara once more after that, last June, when he told me about a range of stories he was working on, and asked me where overseas he might be able to pitch them. He told me then that he was feeling motivated. “I am loving work again,” he wrote.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.