Engaged in the response to the Covid-19 to provide accurate information, journalists and the media are facing obstacles that have rather favoured disinformation.
Lockdowns coupled with curfews have not made it easy for journalists to report on Covid-19. They face obstacles to freedom of press and access to information. This situation persists despite the ongoing easing of lockdown measures.
Security forces and military personnel deployed to carry out and enforce the lockdown and curfew measures have been assaulting, smearing and harassing journalists in several countries, according to reports from journalists and media rights organisations.
In Ghana and Nigeria, law enforcement officials have harassed, abused, or detained journalists and health workers during lockdowns and curfews, despite having been provided proper identification. It was only following protests from professional and civil society organisations that the government decided to take steps to curb such police violence and arrests.
In Sierra Leone and Somalia, journalists running publications that criticized the management of the pandemic were arrested and imprisoned.
In Zimbabwe, two journalists, Franck Chikowore and Samuel Takawira, were arrested on 22 May for violating curfew measures. Two other journalists, Leopold Munhende and Munashe Chokodza, who were returning from work on 24 June, were arrested, tortured, beaten, bludgeoned and injured by police officers on duty despite having presented their press cards. Several other journalists have received similar treatment in the country for the same reasons, without any reaction from the government. Whereas journalists and other media professionals are classified as essential services for information and communication on Covid-19 prevention measures.
The lockdown measures and police repression observed have forced several media outlets to revamp and reorganize their programmes and broadcasts. Several journalists are working from remote locations: teleworking. They go to the editorial office or on field work in a restricted manner. Guests, interviewees and sources of information are connected or contacted remotely. Several programmes and broadcasts are transmitted via videoconference.
Access to credible information remains a major challenge, especially in countries where there are no legislations or practices promoting access to information. Reporters have difficulties gaining access to health centres caring for ill or quarantined persons. These centres are generally inaccessible, locked and closed to journalists. Apart from press briefings and official press releases, journalists do not have easy access to health information.
Cases of lost newsfeeds are also noteworthy. One of the first Covid-19 deaths announced on social networks on 27 March in Togo was the case of a journalist who had just returned from a mission. The images of the journalist in his last moments broadcast on social networks created a stir in the country. No official information has been given to clarify the case. However, since this incident, access to the care centre located in the capital city, Lomé, has been made difficult for the traditional media. The ministry's information is regularly published on the official government website, whereon a response committee set up by the government gives a weekly press conference on Wednesdays.
Reliable sources are difficult to identify, mobilise and convince to voice out through the media their views on the development of the pandemic. Given the evolving and changing nature of the pandemic, resource persons refuse or are reluctant to give information without official authorization from their superiors. Still others refuse or hesitate to express themselves on the media despite their freedom of expression. Nonetheless, there are occasionally leaks or alerts from certain patients on social networks that are picked up by the traditional media, with risks of misinformation.
In most countries, ministerial and health authorities do not communicate enough. Journalists only have access to press releases, or information posted on the official website. The information remains very official and one has to wait for the authority to access it, without any possibility of asking questions. However, there are also examples of countries such as Nigeria where the Presidential Task Force holds a daily press conference where journalists can ask all possible questions.
In this tense and obscure atmosphere, the medical services discover the disease on a daily basis. The mobilized security services carry out and enforce barrier measures, accompanied by repression. Rumours, misinformation and disinformation about traditional remedies, medicines and decoctions continue to abound among the population by word of mouth and on social networks. Thus, and as a logical result of this lack of State transparency, another pandemic of disinformation is beginning to unfold: infodemic.
Gabriel Baglo is journalist and expert and consultant in communication and media development.