How three female journalists faced the challenges of COVID-19 to keep reporting the news

[L-R] Beatrice Spio-Garbrah, Lilipearl Baaba Otoo and Vivian Kai Lokko
Men have largely dominated journalism in Ghana and women’s voices were not often heard in the media in times of crisis and conflict. These days, however, there is a paradigm shift, and this is no longer the case.

Over the years, the working conditions of women journalists in the country, groups supporting women journalists and promoting women’s voices, perspectives and expertise in and through the media have seen considerable improvement.

Despite the improvement, research by the Alliance for Women in Media Africa (AWMA) and School of Information and Communication Studies, the University of Ghana on the Status of Women in the Ghanaian Media suggests that systemic inequalities persist that disadvantage women from thriving in the media industry.

In Ghana, even though the Right to Information (RTI) law has been passed, women journalists face hindrances including harassment in the line of their work. It has increasingly become difficult getting information from sources despite the RTI law and the pandemic has made it even worse.

In 2014, the then Adom FM editor, Afia Pokua was allegedly brutalized along with two of her colleagues by the manager of the National Health Insurance Scheme at Ablekuma in Accra.

She was assaulted, her head was reportedly bashed against the walls of the gutter she fell into, and she sustained injuries on her thighs, legs and hands.

Attack on Zoe Abu-Baidoo

Just recently a female broadcaster, Zoe Abu-Baidoo who works with Citi FM was arrested because her male colleague, Caleb Kudah who had been arrested at the Ministry of National Security for taking videos reportedly sent her the video.

Her arrest was dramatic and traumatizing. According to eyewitness reports, “seven men wielding automatic rifles pursued Zoe from the car pack into the kitchen in Rambo style”. Her crime, her colleague sent her a video.

COVID-19 in Ghana

Ghana reported its first two COVID-19 cases on March 12, 2020. The two subjects were all from abroad, one from Norway and the other from Turkey.

By the end of March 2020, Ghana had recorded 152 confirmed cases with five deaths and 22 recoveries, necessitating the locking down of some parts of the country considered to be the epicentres.

The Ghana government banned all public gatherings including conferences, workshops, funerals, festivals, political rallies, church activities and other related events to reduce the spread of the virus.

As of March 26, 2021, Ghana has recorded 93,898 cases with 92,961 recoveries, 1,152 actives cases and 785 deaths according to the Ghana Health service.

The pandemic impacted all sectors of the economy. The economic sector for instance saw people losing their jobs.

A new COVID-19 Business Tracker Survey, which was conducted by the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS), in collaboration with the UNDP, and the World Bank showed that about 770,000 workers (25.7 per cent of the total workforce), had their wages reduced and about 42,000 employees were laid off during the country’s COVID-19 partial lock-down.

Three women journalists share their COVID-19 stories

These three women journalists, Beatrice Spio-Garbrah of TV3, Vivian Kai Lokko of Citi FM and Citi TV and Lilipearl Baaba Otoo of Business and Financial Times share their experiences of working in the newsroom in Ghana during the COVID-19 pandemic with Ghana Business News.

During this period, these female journalists feared they could lose their jobs as many of their colleagues were laid off. As they went through days and months of uncertainty as to whether they would still have their jobs or not, or that they would be infected, they continued to work to inform Ghanaians, including reporting about a virus that the world had little knowledge of.

“COVID-19 did not affect the way I work very much because my work entails using the laptop to work from wherever I was and that was exactly how I was working during the peak of the pandemic. However, the bonding at work was really affected with the social distancing protocols,” Ms Spio-Garbrah says.

The impact on our work because of COVID-19 was very huge. It had both positive and negative impacts, Mrs Vivian Kai Lokko said.

“Prior to the COVID-19, you needed to meet people for an interview but when they are busy, you are not able to deal with them. But during COVID-19, a lot of people reverted to Zoom. One could do video interviews without the usual excuse of ‘I’m not available’. A lot of interviews were done and still done via Zoom for both radio and TV.”

According to her, COVID-19 also had a negative impact. People were not available and rightly so because there was a pandemic, and they will not avail themselves. “As newspersons, it was frightening to go out there because you do not know who has the virus and you could get exposed to many people who might have likely contracted it.”

It was quite challenging, she said. It had an impact on the stories, the timing for the stories and it also had impact on dealing with sources.

Ms Otoo on the other hand saw the period as a time of discovery. “Working from home afforded me the opportunity to spend time with family and focus on some side business that I have been nurturing. It gave me the opportunity to explore, learn new skills and nurture the idea of starting a new YouTube channel.”

She said it basically gave her the opportunity for reflection, and she really loved it. Although there were some difficulties.

Speaking on how they did their work, given the COVID-19 situation; for Ms Spio-Garbrah, work was not so much affected. Mrs. Lokko said despite the pandemic, there was still the need to inform, educate and entertain people.

“At my work, various protocols to aid our work were put in place. For instance, we got the boomsticks so that during interviews, we are not in proximity with the interviewees. We ensured social distancing, use of facemasks and gloves”.

Ms Otoo is a print journalist, and so, for her, it was easier. “The problem is, we sometimes rely on programme stories, assignment stories where there is an event, and you go and cover the story and since events were halted, it was hard getting stories but there was Zoom and phone calls.”

She said she had to get another phone to record phone calls in other to transcribe to do her stories, an experience she described as difficult.

Unstable Internet connection according to her was also a major challenge. “Sometimes you schedule a Zoom meeting, and the time is up but your Internet is just not working. That part of it was hard but overall, we were able to work from home, unlike the audio-visual journalists who had to be there for stories to be done or prepare a background to make it appealing for sight. For us, it was better.”

Just like many people, COVID-19 affected these women’s finances. Ms Spio-Garbrah cited how she had to use more of Uber or Bolt as means of transportation because she feared joining the commercial vehicles and that came at a higher cost. For her, staying at home meant the house had to be stocked with food so some additional cost was incurred.

Even though she is a news editor, Mrs Lokko’s salary was slashed. However, she says the impact on her finances was softer compared to others because of her company’s relief measures of catering for her transport needs and transportation.

Ms Otoo’s salary was cut too. “I could not buy the things I used to buy on the regular. I became economical on the things I do, and people were asking me for money because they lost their jobs or were laid off work. My brother was home and was relying on me. My sister was also relying on me and the burden became enormous.”

Responding to the question on measures their various organizations put in place during the pandemic; Ms Spio-Garbrah said she was provided with facemasks and sanitizers periodically while Mrs. Lokko indicated that she was given transportation to and from work as well as periodic COVID tests.

In addition to providing facemasks, sanitizers and handwashing equipment, Ms Otoo said: “My organization made sure that we did not come to work at all for some time. Then we started running the shift system and after that, we went fully when everything had settled.”

In a bid to reduce touch, she says the clocking-in machine was totally scrapped and the doors left ajar. “We did not use air-conditioning anymore, they had to fix fans. We went for lunch in batches due to the size of our kitchen,” she told Ghana Business News.

If you ever thought journalists were not affected by the global pandemic because they were the ones feeding the nation with information, then you thought wrong.

“I was affected by COVID psychologically because a colleague got the virus and I was close to her per our sitting arrangements, so I really got scared. I was also scared of going out to gather news as a health reporter,” Ms Spio Garbrah said.

“I had colleagues, friends and acquaintances who got infected by the virus. Some even died. It changed my way of life. Our social and family life was disrupted. We were so exposed and had to protect ourselves,” Mrs Lokko explained.

Ms Otoo said she was affected psychologically. “I was so scared. It really affected my mental health. I did not go out and could not still go out even after the lockdown was over. I saw everyone as having the virus. I could not sleep. I had panic attacks”.

“Anytime I got a call from home I was really scared. My brother suffers from asthma and I felt like he has an underlying condition so anytime I got a call from home, I got this sharp panic attack that affected my mental health so much.”

Sharing their experiences on the coping mechanism they were able to develop during the pandemic; Ms Spio-Garbrah said she developed the need to work independently without a cameraman.  “I also coped with the new normal and adjusted to the working environment of keeping to myself”.

Mrs Lokko said she learnt that nothing is permanent, and this too will pass away. “I made sure to keep all COVID-19 protocols. I believe that in life, there will be good times and bad times, so I am just dealing with it.”

For Ms Otoo, the pandemic brought out another side of her that she did not know existed. “It gave me another perspective to life that ‘Wow! we could be here today and truly be gone just by the wind’. It made me liberal and social. Social media was my major coping mechanism,” she said.

According to her, using social media was not a deliberate mechanism to help her cope but she felt that it helped her deal with the situation.

The pandemic has been devastating, and it does appear that the ripple effects would continue to be felt for a long time to come.

By Theodora Aidoo

This story is published with support from Journalists for Human Rights under the Mobilizing Media to Fighting COVID-19 project.

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