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The key role played by the media in shaping public perception on COVID-19 in Sierra Leone

November 13, 2020

By Ibrahim Tarawallie

Sierra Leone has been grappling with various health emergencies for the past six years. With one of the poorest health infrastructures in Africa, the country was at first devastated by the outbreak of the dreaded Ebola Virus in 2014, which killed 3,956 people. Like Ebola, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected all facets of life in the country. Comparatively though, the infection rate of COVID-19 in the country is relatively low: 2,383 confirmed cases and 74 deaths as at Sunday November 8, 2020, compared to 14,124 confirmed cases and 3,956 deaths for Ebola. One of the contributors to the low infection rate of the Coronavirus is the significant role played by the media in creating awareness about the virus among the population.

Sierra Leone Association of Journalists

To enhance government’s capability in terms of effecting behavioral change leading to the general acceptability of the existence of COVID-19, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) strongly collaborated with the government in the fight against the pandemic.

 Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, President of SLAJ, narrated the role played by his association in the fight against the pandemic.

“Before we even had the index case, and when news broke out of the pandemic spreading widely in countries, we were proactive enough to join the government in preparing the minds of the people that the virus was real and it was coming to Sierra Leone, and that it was just a matter of time,” he said.

He said a SLAJ Coronavirus Response Committee was established with a mandate to liaise with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation for expert information on the virus so that journalists could have knowledge about the virus as well as understand the preventive measures.

SLAJ also established a national simulcast program on radio and TV, which was a clearing house for all information about the virus to dispel misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

According to Nasralla, the program was used as a platform to talk directly to the people and convince them about the existence of the virus, as well as proffering prevention mechanisms and measures to combat the spread.

“Beyond that, this program continued after we had our index case. During the lockdowns, the media was the source of all information and we collaborated with the Independent Radio Network (IRN) and other media groups to speak with one voice,” Nasralla noted.

The SLAJ president said people all over the country relied on the media for accurate information on the virus and also about what the government was doing, especially in areas such as care and prevention.

Despite not undertaking any survey to gauge the contribution of the media in the fight, Nasralla stated that the feedback from various sections of the society, including from the government and development partners, was positive as people seemed to have appreciated the message of prevention and compliance with health measures.

He encouraged his fellow journalists to observe all safety measures while reporting public health emergencies like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

He noted that when the pandemic started, they issued out safety guidelines together with the Sierra Leone Reporters’ Union on how media houses should protect their members and guests coming into their radio and TV stations.

“We also provided information tips to journalists going out to get news on the virus, which is what we called self-preservation,” he added.

Coordinating the fight

When the pandemic broke out in Sierra Leone on 31 March 2020, the government set up a task force that was charged with coordinating the fight against the disease. The National Coronavirus Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC) is headed by the Minister of Defence, Brig. (Rtd.) Kellie Conteh, who served as the National Coordinator.

Communication Pillar Lead at NaCOVERC, Harold Thomas, said there were five strategies adopted to pass on critical information to the public on the pandemic, namely: Risk Communication plans and mechanisms, public communication, internal and partner communication and coordination, rumour management, and coordination and engagement with effected or targeted communities.

He however could not immediately provide details of the impact of the said strategies on the behaviour of the public towards the virus.

Traditional media remains key

With the advent of social media characterized by misinformation, the traditional media played a key role in creating balance amid the abundance of information being put out to the public. The public largely relied on the traditional media as sources of credible information about the pandemic.

Mabinty Aziza Mansaray, a student at the Institute of Public Administration and Management, said she trusted news coming from radio and television covering the Coronavirus pandemic in Sierra Leone.

“At first, I doubted the reality of the virus but when I started getting information on it from radio and television, I started taking measures to prevent myself and family from contracting the virus,” she said.

“I believe messages coming from the various media outlets helped Sierra Leoneans to understand what to do to keep themselves safe from the virus.”

She added that the media had been very instrumental because it did not only provide the platform for people leading the response to share useful information about the virus, but that the journalists themselves became the true harbingers of credible information.

“Journalists carried out public education during the Ebola outbreak and they are playing a similar role during this current Coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Rugiatu Bangura, a petty trader in Freetown, noted: “We depend on the media for correct information and the radio and TV stations have been providing us with very useful messages as to how we should conduct ourselves during this crisis period. My family and I are following all the safety guidelines being presented to us by medical professionals through the media.”

For his part, Morlai Kamara, a local taxi driver said: “My trusted source of reliable information about COVID-19 and any other health emergencies has been on radio and TV, and sometimes through some credible newspapers.”

He said the media has always played a leading role in times of national crisis like it did during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016, the mudslide disaster in 2017, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. “The nation always looks up to the media for life-saving information in crisis periods,” he reiterated.

Kadijatu Sesay is a teacher at Regmel Preparatory School in Freetown. She said the Sierra Leonean media has truly lived up to its role as the voice and conscience of the people by always taking the lead in information dissemination during emergencies.

“They did it during Ebola and they are doing it again during COVID-19. During Ebola, it was only after the media initiated the simulcast program linking all radio and television stations across the country and broadcasting messages of hope and what people should do to ensure they are not infected that we began to see people visiting the hospital,” she said.

“And the infection numbers began to go down gradually. Before then nobody trusted the messages coming from the politicians.”

Proactive measures to change behaviour

Serving as the main government mouthpiece, the Ministry of Information and Communications also played a significant role in galvanizing and adopting various communication strategies and putting in place other measures to enhance the response process to the pandemic.

Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Mamadi Gobeh-Kamara, explained the role of her ministry in the fight: “We had a lot of strategies put in place by government to contain the spread of the virus; the airport closure for example helped to reduce the inflow of people because our first case was from there.”

She said the idea to shut down the country’s borders was a lesson learnt from the Ebola epidemic as many people living in border communities became infected with the Ebola virus because of the “porous nature of our borders”.

“And so, when COVID-19 struck, we closed our borders to stop the movement of people from Guinea and Liberia into Sierra Leone. The closure of the sea, air and land borders went a long way to help us as a country to contain the spread,” she said.

Kamara added: “We had a whole strategy put together for information and communication. We had lots of engagements with radio and television stations. We also had measures in place for people to practice washing of hands, putting on face mask and social distancing, and so by the time the virus struck, the awareness was already there.”

Regarding the impact of these measures, she said even though COVID-19 was not the same as Ebola, wherein the signs are more visible, people were still adhering to the safety measures instituted by the government because of the massive awareness campaign.

“I believe that it was because of the proactive measures we had put in place before our index case that changed the behavior of Sierra Leoneans. We also had posters and flyers in strategic locations which helped the people to believe that the virus is with us,” the Deputy Information Minister said.

Critical role of the media during pandemics

Dr. Francis Sowa, Senior Lecturer at the Mass Communication Department at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and former Chairman of the Media Reform Coordinating Group (MRCG) dilated on the approach used by the media through SLAJ to enhance the fight against the pandemic.

“To start with, when there are national health issues like the Coronavirus pandemic and the Ebola scourge, the media institutions within the context of Sierra Leone have always taken a position. That position has come from the parent body, SLAJ. With Coronavirus as well as Ebola, SLAJ has always been performing the collaborative and facilitative role,” explained Dr. Sowa.

“For us scholars who have written something about the media, we believe that the media can perform at least four roles. They talk about the radical role but there is the facilitative role as well as the collaborative role.

When Ebola struck, SLAJ had an approach which was collaboration. They were collaborating with government, partners and other stakeholders. That collaborative approach by SLAJ influenced the coverage and reportage of many other media institutions.”

He emphasized that journalists are not trained or taught how to collaborate or facilitate things for government and agencies, and that the radical approach is usually shelved by the media when it comes to public health emergencies like the current Coronavirus pandemic.

“Our primary focus was publication education. We have been engaged more in public education or otherwise advocacy journalism. At the peak of Ebola and the current Coronavirus pandemic, our focus has been on raising awareness using our platforms for people to understand that the virus exists, and it can cause serious difficulty,” he said.

“Our approach impacted greatly during the pandemics, especially during this current one. The radio programs, the vox-pops, the feedbacks we are having are that public education on the crisis is very high. People have the knowledge and that was created by the work of the media.”

He noted that one of the best practices in reporting pandemics is that the journalist must be clear on how to report on the health emergencies.

He added that across the board, when it comes to reporting on pandemics, journalists have performed the role of providing accurate information.

Independent Media Commission

In terms of regulating the media, especially dealing with fake news in the advent of social media, the Independent Media Commission (IMC) is playing a leading role in that regard.

Dr. Victor Suma, a Commissioner at the IMC, said fake news and misinformation are concerns to them as regulators.

“So as an institution, we entered into a campaign against fake news and misinformation and we did that for a whole month visiting media houses across the country on the issue. Any form of fake news would interfere with the work of healthcare workers and I think the media has a big role to play,” he said.

He noted that the traditional media has to a very large extent been compliant with regards to not publishing fake news or misinformation on the virus, save for a few recalcitrant ones who think sensationalizing the news is just part of their own way of practicing journalism.

“On a whole, we just have 5% to 6% of the media that are giving trouble but basically, they are complying,” Dr. Suma affirmed.

Reporting on the frontline

One of the frontline reporters during the Ebola crisis and COVID-19 pandemic is Ishmail Saidu Kanu of the Believers Broadcasting Network (BBN). He shared his experience:

“Honestly I always feel happy to serve my country in such situations. As a journalist for about 11 years now and covering the Ebola outbreak in 2014/2016 and the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, it has been challenging for me. During the last health crisis and this one, I always work with frontline health workers to get the real picture on the ground.”

Kanu said he would talk to nurses and doctors, among others, to ensure they bring out the real situation of the crisis as according to him, many a time when you speak to politicians, they will paint a good picture about the crisis and response but the frontline workers have the actual story to tell.

“Bringing out the real picture makes people in the frontline feel good, knowing that people are there to support them. I feel happy always covering pandemics because, aside from the experience, I see it as a national call to service. I risk my life to talk to frontline health workers because you never know who had contacted the virus,” he said.    

Former President of SLAJ, Kelvin Lewis, also shared his experience on the role played by the media to enhance the fight against the Ebola scourge.

“The media did interviews with victims who had suffered from the virus and had been cured to tell their stories. Victims who had been cured were celebrated upon their discharge from the hospital facilities. Also, the medical personnel explained the symptoms, and what they were doing to care for those who had contracted the virus,” he said.

Like the current president of SLAJ, Lewis believes that the unique simulcast of radio programs was the most powerful tool, because for a period of 2 hours everyday, practically all radio stations in the country were broadcasting the virus magazine program live.

“Effectively listeners all around the country could not listen to any other radio broadcast as the only program on all the radio stations was the one on the virus. Those who grew fed up and started tuning their radio sets found out that all the radio stations were jammed into one,” he explained.

Lewis observed that the most significant impact was behaviour change, because when Ebola broke out people started with washing of hands and proceeded to not touching others because it was believed that the virus could be transferred through sweat.

“So, people learnt to move around without touching anyone. Secondly, it developed a deep-seated trust for the media as it became the most trusted source of information. This was so because the earlier message was that anyone who contracted the [Ebola] virus will die.”

From all indications, the traditional media has always played a critical role in enhancing government’s capability in fighting outbreaks in Sierra Leone. Despite its critical role in holding government to account, the media has always been collaborative with the government in times of public health emergencies.

Currently in Sierra Leone, the infection rate of COVID-19 has drastically decreased and some of the restrictive measures put in place by the government have been relaxed. In all of this, however, the media remains vigilant in reminding the public about their obligations to maintain safety measures like washing of hands, wearing of face masks and social distancing, among others. The traditional media remains the trusted source of information in Sierra Leone.

Note: This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa- China Reporting Project at the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. The opinions expressed and conclusions drawn are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Project.