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October 8, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Freedom of information hit by Ebola virus


Combatting the epidemic needs good media reporting but panicked governments are muzzling journalists

The panic in Western African countries hit by the Ebola epidemic is taking its toll on local news media. Some countries are “quarantining” their journalists to prevent them covering this unprecedented public health crisis although responsible media coverage is badly needed.

Last weekend in Guinea, soldiers prevented a group of lawyers and journalists from travelling to a village in N’Zérékoré prefecture to investigate the murders of eight people, including three journalists, during a health education visit to the village on 18 September.

Although the lawyers and journalists had official permission to visit the village, their equipment was seized and, according to Radio France Internationale, their recordings and photos were deleted.

The army now controls the massacre area and prevents anyone from going there, even those with orders signed by the civilian authorities, highlighting an administrative confusion that is complicating the fight against Ebola.

In Liberia, the authorities last week announced new restrictions on media coverage of the epidemic. Journalists must now have a health ministry permit to conduct interviews or take photos inside hospitals and, even more seriously, medical personnel have been banned from communicating directly with the media.

The information ministry then proceeded to tighten the government’s grip on the media by assuming responsibility for issuing press cards, which until now have been issued by the Press Unions of Liberia in line with international standards including the Declaration of Table Mountain, which President Elaine Johnson Sirleaf signed in July 2012.

This is not the first time that Liberia’s journalists have seen their freedom curbed since the start of the crisis. Henry Karmo, a journalist with the independent daily FrontPage Africa, was arrested on 11 August while covering a protest against the state of emergency, which prevents journalists from circulating at night.

Helen G. Nah, the publisher of the Women Voices Newspaper, was questioned a few weeks later for publishing an article about alleged embezzlement of funding earmarked for combatting Ebola.

The Liberian authorities are not the only ones who are worried about their reputation. In Sierra Leone, the parliament threatened to adopt drastic measures against news media that dared to criticize how the funding for the health crisis is being managed.

In Senegal too, journalists have every reason to watch their step, especially since La Tribune editor Félix N’Zalé was fined 1 million CFA francs and was given a one-year suspended jail sentence for misreporting that that there were Ebola cases in Senegal.

While it is essential that the media do not help to spread false rumours, the severity of the sentence intimidated all the Senegalese media, which have not been in any further trouble since then.

Information about the Ebola epidemic has even been restricted in countries that have not been hit by it. In Sudan, for example, the government has banned the media from covering the story.

Media responsibility

Despite the frequency and gravity of these violations of freedom of information, some positive achievements have also been seen.

Nigeria is not normally known for respecting media rights and a journalist was arrested there in August for writing about the epidemic. But, according to the humanitarian news agency IRIN, Nigeria has since behaved very differently from its neighbours, using the media and especially social networks to help combat the epidemic.

“The fear initially felt by the authorities about the scale of the epidemic resulted in counter-productive attempts to censor the media,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.

“To overcome this epidemic, media and governments must each shoulder their responsibilities professionally. After decades of promoting freedom of information, we must not let this crisis return us to the past. Instead it should be seen as an opportunity for governments in affected countries to work more closely with the media and promote responsible journalism.”

Kahn-Sriber added: “We urge these governments not to yield to a panic that could induce them to reverse democratic advances that have taken years to achieve.”

It must be recognized that some media have also been guilty of excesses. Journalists have indulged in sensational reporting and have sometimes got their facts wrong. In Nigeria, for example, several media said you could avoid catching Ebola by drinking lots of salt water. This rumour became so widespread that the information ministry had to issue a denial.

In a statement on 17 September, the World Federation of Science Journalists stressed the “urgent need to close the gap in communication between scientists, journalists and communities.”

Médecins Sans Frontières and Radio France Internationale have shown the way in cooperation between media and health professionals. In Ebola-hit countries, RFI is now broadcasting health information messages produced jointly with MSF.

In the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Senegal is ranked 62nd, Sierra Leone is 72nd, Liberia is 89th, Guinea is 102nd, Nigeria is 112th and Sudan is 172nd.

(photo : workers wearing special equipment stand inside a contaminated area in Elwa hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in Monrovia, Liberia / AFP - Dominique Faget)