On the occasion of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) salutes the gallant contribution of the media in West Africa in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic. The MFWA applauds the media’s commitment to providing factual, reliable, timely information which has helped to counter the influx of misinformation and disinformation about the disease.
Indeed, misinformation and unfounded rumours during a pandemic are as debilitating as the disease itself. An information vacuum is dangerous, as it fuels harmful speculations that can put the lives of the public at risk.
For instance, on March 19, 2020, a Sierra Leonean mother, Mrs. Mantie Tina Turay, died of cardiac arrest. Mrs. Turay, who had a heart condition, had received false information that a suspicious Coronavirus vaccine was being administered to schoolchildren in Freetown. Anxious to save her child, she had made a lung-bursting run towards her child’s school, but collapsed on the way, and was eventually pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
In Guinea, there was a widespread conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was a creation of the government aimed at limiting freedom of assembly and public protests against the President’s bid for a third term in office. This resulted in a general disregard for safety measures, thus, causing the infection rate to soar. Thirty-two journalists contracted the disease as well as hundreds of Guineans.
Similarly, health personnel in Nigeria identified numerous cases of Chloroquine overdose among patients after various media platforms, especially social media, ignorantly extolled its efficacy for the treatment of COVID-19.
These incidents underline how deadly false information can be, especially during a health emergency and the need to have factual, reliable, and timely information.
Across West Africa, the MFWA observed several initiatives undertaken by several media organisations to counter misinformation. Many fact-checking initiatives were started. For instance, within the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak, TogoCheck in Togo produced 77 reports to counter fake news in relation to the virus. Fact-Check Ghana, an MFWA initiative, produced over 100 fact-checked reports on the disease, and broadcast scores of documentaries to debunk fake news.
In Sierra Leone, the daily ‘Leh Wi Dreb Corona’ (Let’s Drive Corona Away), and the weekly ‘Corona Tok’ (Corona Talk) simulcast programmes became the game-changer, providing factual and verified information which helped demystify the disease, calmed nerves, and built public trust. The media comprehensively reported statistics, restrictions, and practical guidance on protection, which helped people schedule their daily routines in an informed manner.
It is, however, important to stress that the ability of the media to provide factual information to the public lies in their greatest commitment to professionalism and respect for their code of ethics. As purveyors of information, the MFWA reminds the media that information can serve the public good only if it is accurate. The media is therefore encouraged to ensure the following:
- Verify every piece of information on the pandemic (and other issues) adequately and not to be in a haste to publish content.
- Speak to health experts and professionals for explanation and insights on issues concerning the COVID pandemic and any other subject matter being reported.
- Always crosscheck facts with the local and international institutions designated to provide information on the COVID-19 pandemic – eg. World Health Organisation (WHO), Africa Center for Disease Control, Health Services of the Government, etc – and any other issue being reported.
- The media must use their platforms to counter misinformation and disinformation, and debunk conspiracy theories on COVID-19.
- Ultimately, the media must produce content aimed at fighting and preventing the spread of COVID-19.