Latin American journalists face mass layoffs and lack of health protection to cover the COVID-19 pandemic

Faced with the economic crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the wave of disinformation spreading like the virus throughout the world, journalism is considered by various international organizations as an essential service now more than ever, and journalists as workers essential for society.



However, journalists around the world are being hit by unemployment, the lack of protective sanitary equipment from their employers and the general precariousness of their situation and that of their families. Latin America is no exception.

In Paraguay, on May 5, recently unemployed press workers wearing masks and carrying posters marched toward the center of the capital, Asunción, to protest dismissals that took place the previous day, EFE reported.

According to a statement from the Paraguayan Journalists Union (SPP, for its acronym in Spanish), nearly 100 media workers were laid off on May 3.

According to the SPP, 300 Paraguayan media workers reportedly have lost their jobs or had their contracts suspended since the pandemic health crisis began, EFE reported.

In Ecuador, on May 1, 35 former employees of company Editorial Minotauro, to which the daily La Hora belongs, addressed a letter to Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, the president of the National Assembly, César Litardo, and other government officials to protest the massive dismissal of La Hora workers in recent weeks, Fundamedios published.

As Fundamedios reported, the signatories denounced that the dismissals had been protected in article 169, numeral 6, of the Labor Code, which allows the termination of contracts for causes of "force majeure that make work impossible.” According to Fundamedios, and based on the documents to which it had access, the executives allegedly argued the crisis caused by the pandemic was the cause of the dismissals.

Alexis Serrano Carmona, until two weeks ago the general editor of the Ecuadorian newspaper La Hora, said in an interview with the Knight Center that when the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the country, the newspaper had already accumulated a financial deficit for several years and was surviving a very difficult 2019.

According to Serrano, La Hora still had not overcome the financial crisis inherited from the decade of President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) with its restrictive and punitive policy against independent media. Nor had it overcome the deficit caused by the lack of payment for official advertising that the National Electoral Council owed since the 2019 municipal elections, Serrano said, in addition to the several-day strike that caused the social and economic crisis that erupted in the country in October 2019.

Serrano worked at the newspaper for 13 years. The company stopped paying salaries in February of this year and he resigned in late April. “I couldn't stay with the uncertainty of having or not having enough for my children to eat, so that day, talking to my wife, we literally started selling chickens. We began to see companies that distributed chickens and we ordered, and we began to sell among the neighbors, with the car, as a home service."

Serrano said that the owners informed him that they will agree on payment plans with all those who were dismissed.

"The untimely dismissals put communication workers throughout Ecuador in a situation of extreme vulnerability, which is why it is necessary to activate protection mechanisms to guarantee their journalistic work and guarantee freedom of expression in the country," Fundamedios said at the time, demanding that the government respect and protect the labor rights of former employees of La Hora.

Fundamedios, together with the organizations Nos Faltan Tres, Periodistas sin Cadenas, the Ecuadorian chapter of Chicas Poderosas and the Guayaquil civil society coalition, SOS Familias, are providing financial assistance through vouchers to journalists in vulnerable situations in the city of Guayaquil. Guayaquil is the city most affected by the virus in the country, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

"Right now we are dedicated to assisting journalists and their families that are in a vulnerable state in the city of Guayaquil," César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, told the Knight Center. "We have mapped 113 journalists in these conditions. Journalists who have become infected with COVID-19, including families of journalists who died from it, and others who are not confirmed to be COVID-19 positive but who have lost their jobs or their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic.”

The campaign began in mid-April after SOS Familias alerted the organization to the vulnerable situations of journalists, Ricaurte said. Fundamedios and SOS Familias contacted the journalists the organization registered to verify their data, he explained. "Families have been given a small voucher of at least $50 so they can meet their food needs."

Likewise, in the neighboring country, the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Felcoper) and the International Federation of Journalists, rejected the labor rights violations affecting many journalists in that country.

Felcoper, through its platform to assist journalists, indicated that it had detected illegal practices such as the imposition of unpaid work breaks imposed unilaterally on numerous press workers in the face of the crisis caused by the coronavirus. They also detected work overload, salary cuts despite the same or a greater number of hours of work, suspension of contracts, dismissal without compensation, among other irregularities.

"In Colombia, COVID-19 has not been declared as force majeure nor as a situation that allows workers to be dismissed with just cause," Felcoper said.

Additionally, the federation denounced that there is an "absence of optimal conditions" in the country to prevent and mitigate the virus in the facilities of various media outlets, which require workers to buy their own masks and personal protection equipment.

In Chile, according to the site El Desconcierto, the national channel TVN Chile had a second wave of layoffs due to the deep crisis that has dragged on since the end of 2019. At the end of April 2020, the state channel laid off 71 employees, 35 of them workers in the press department, according to El Desconcierto. In total, TVN Chile has laid off some 169 workers since late December, the site reported.

There is a law that would protect workers in Chile from arbitrary dismissals due to the pandemic, according to the Chilean site El Mostrador. The government enacted the Employment Protection Law, which has been in force since April 6 and protects the income and employment relationship of workers when acts of authority, such as quarantines or company closures, prevent the worker from lending their services during the six months after its publication or while the State of Catastrophe lasts, the site explained.

However, the metropolitan council of the Chilean Association of Journalists rejected the aforementioned law because it allows employers to suspend employment contracts, arbitrarily reduce wages and force their employees to accept its conditions, Diario de Antofagasta published. Likewise, the Association of Journalists rejected the mass dismissals carried out by TVN, Mega, La Red, El Mercurio, among other media with national reach, the site published.

Likewise, in Argentina, the government published a decree that prohibits arbitrary dismissals for 60 days, during April and May, that are due to the pandemic, El Clarín reported.

However, this crisis situation will affect both employed press workers and those who work independently, Fernando Ruiz, president of the Argentine Journalism Forum (Fopea) told the Knight Center. "Journalism, and all it entails, will be affected," Ruiz said.

“One of the characteristics of this situation is that it affects journalists, whatever their work situation, both journalists from the big media, as well as medium-sized ones, as well as from small ones, and those who are freelance or entrepreneurs with self-managed media. This is a very strong blackout, very difficult, therefore, here we cannot speak of one sector as being more affected than another,” he explained.

According to Ruiz, there are already traditional print media and major television channels that are paying their employees' wages in installments.

Ricardo Kirschbaum, general editor of Clarín, told the Knight Center that they have stopped their investments and minimized their operating expenses to prioritize the payment of wages.

"The objective is to maintain the permanent staff and to support, as much as possible, the work of external collaborators," Kirschbaum said. “Today there are sections of the newspaper whose publication has been suspended or noticeably reduced due to the effects of the pandemic, such as the Sunday section of Viajes, for example. We are confident that our efforts to provide quality journalism and service will allow us to face this crisis, which is common to many newspapers in the world.”

Regarding the protection of his personnel, Kirschbaum assured that they are following all the necessary labor and security protocols, with the advice of an infectious disease doctor. "The newsroom moved massively to the houses of our journalists, from day one," he added.



On May 1, Fopea published a statement with a series of proposals that emphasize how the challenge of these times can be met to preserve journalistic work without losing press freedom. "The journalist needs to keep his job but they also need the working conditions that make it possible to carry out their professional work well," Ruiz said.

"We are in such a precarious employment situation, in Argentina and Latin America, that now, that vulnerability can be exploited by governments, and other sectors with economic and political powers, to finance and sustain journalism but in exchange for limiting their freedom," he added.

In Mexico, the secrecy of official information about the pandemic in the country is hindering the work of journalists, who are mostly working from home, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). However, the organization noted, reporters who have to take to the streets to cover the news of COVID-19 in hospitals, at marches, etc., are asking the government to facilitate tests to rule out that they have been infected during their work.

Journalists from various parts of Mexico who were contacted by the organization commented that the federal and state governments are doing little to protect them against the virus in the course of their work. If the authorities or their media outlets provide them with masks, these are scarce and for single use, which does not cover several days of reporting, leaving them exposed to infection.

Likewise, according to CPJ, there are already media outlets that have cut their payroll, reduced salaries or have completely closed their editions, exacerbating the economic situation of journalists in the country, which had already been affected by the existing economic crisis in Mexico, and the widespread lack of protection for journalists in the country.

As a prevention and security measure, Peruvian editorial group El Comercio has sent 75 percent of its employees to work from home, and the personnel required at the newspaper's facilities take turns, Carla Bernaola, manager of talent management at El Comercio, told the Knight Center.

Its reporters and photographers covering the pandemic in the streets, morgues, hospitals, are provided with suits, glasses, gloves, 3M respirators, Bernaola said. Offices and employees who must work in person follow a rigorous disinfection regimen, in addition to rapid tests to rule out COVID-19, daily monitoring of symptoms and recording of body temperature of workers, she added.

For its part, the National Association of Journalists of Peru (ANP) asked the head of the Ministry of Health, Víctor Zamora, to protect journalists from the interior of the country who work independently, by providing them with masks, gloves and all protection equipment necessary to cover the pandemic.

According to the ANP, 80 percent of journalists who work independently in regions outside of Lima do not have employers who comply with the protection measures required by law for companies, and therefore their situation is very precarious.

In Panama, the National Association of Journalists (Conape), denounced multiple violations of labor rights of Panamanian journalists, according to the site Puro Periodismo Panamá.

The organization denounced the reduction of wages, irregular payments of wages to workers and unpaid forced vacations that some media outlets imposed on their employees.

Likewise, Conape asked the government to protect journalists in the country by proposing a series of measures that would help, such as requiring media companies to maintain telework to protect the health of journalists.