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MEDIA RESPONSE TO THE EBOLA VIRUS DISEASE IN SIERRA LEONE

June 10, 2015 By Tonya Musa – Head of Mass Communications Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone

A lead speaker in the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists AGM 2015 in Kenema

June 6th 2015

THE NATIONAL CONTEXT

It was on the 25th May 2014 when the first confirmed Ebola case was recorded in Sierra Leone, which was traced from neighboring Guinea.  The surge of this virus has affected the country in several ways. Economically, the outbreak caused the halt and stagnation of the country’s economic viability by forcing almost all major companies and corporations to scale down drastically their operations.  Farmers also were similarly affected, mining companies, constructions firms and services including tourism, transportation and education have similarly suffered severely.

The epidemic has reduced revenue principally by affecting mining royalties, sale taxes (largely from the closure of service establishments, lower consumption of domestic goods, and lower imports), a general weakening in tax compliance due to increased uncertainty in the country investment climate.  Socially, it had disturbed the normal calendar of all tertiary, secondary and primary institutions of learning in the country. Also, all entertainment centres and social occasions have been put on hold in compliance with current state of public health emergency in the country. Politically, the disease has affected the census calendar and has also extended the constitutional review process which should have been completed if not.  At the same time there is a state of emergency restricting movements and activities of people which impacts negatively on human rights standards.

At the initial stage the of epidemic, the government was accused of being complacent regarding the seriousness and fatality of the disease, in fact senior government officials in the Ministry of Health were even adamant to accept that the disease was here and with determination to inflict disaster on the country. Some even assured the public about government’s preparedness and capacity to resist the virus.   Worst of all there was no attempt by government to engage the media in order to support its health education campaign on awareness raising among the public and advocacy for local and international support in terms of resources and facilities.

Thus messaging on the virus became chaotic and uncoordinated. Several Information Education and Communication materials were developed some with ambiguity and which resulted to sending of wrong messages through the media and other means of communication.  The entire communication aspect of the response at this stage was disjointed and to some extent rendered it incredible. For instance the Ebola disease was reported to be an incurable disease, which undermined the initial mobilization of the public to go to health centres if signs and symptoms are noticed. In fact people considered all those who contracted the disease at this stage as victims rather as patients.

MASS INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSE TO EBOLA

At this point, institutions, corporations, companies and individuals started pledging financial and other donations to fight against the virus. Political party lines were not considered as limitations but meant for innovations and mobilization to fight the virus. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) was among those institutions who voluntarily decided to use their resources to mobilize everyone in terms of messaging on the prevention and control of the virus.  Preventive messages are very important in responding to the disease.  For example messages on avoiding body contact, washing of hands, and accepting temperature test etc. were very paramount in media communication.  The messages on control of the disease with inform the steps to follow when signs and symptoms are noticed in communities and where to report cases.

A committee was formed in July 2014 known as the SLAJ Ebola Response Committee, which designed a 30 minutes radio programme titled “Dreb Ebola.” The purpose of the radio programme was to provide early response outlet for the Ministry of Health and the Social mobilization pillar of the national Ebola response on EVD issues on regular basis and to educate the public about the signs and symptoms of the EVD; and when and where to report cases and seek medical attention.  Raising public awareness about the virus and its contacts, the role of the key service providers, including the significance of Holding Centres, Case Management Centres, Treatment Centres and Epicentres.  Control activities like contact tracing, surveillance quarantine and 117.

The messaging was persuasive in design and content,  appealing for  health desired practices: to avoid eating bush meat, avoid hiding sick people, avoid giving treatments at pharmacies, avoid body contact,  stop secret and unsafe burials , stop removing patients from treatment centres,  disseat from washing the dead,  no drug peddling, no treatment to be given by herbalists, no indiscriminate sex etc.

At the same time reinforcing government’s policy on the preventive measures: no gathering, no rally, bike riders to retire at 7pm,  trading from 6am to 6pm, restriction of movements at some point in time etc.

As a result of this development, UNICEF, CDC, WHO and MOH etc. created the Social Mobilization Action Consortium SMAC. The responsibility was given to this consortium to develop and disseminate Anti-Ebola messages. They developed thematic messages weekly called the “big idea of the week.” This initiative helped in coordinating and harmonizing the messaging on the prevention and control of the virus.    The role of the media became unquestionable and very satisfactory looking at the IRN/SLAJ Dreb Ebola radio programme, the coverage by the SLBC, the BBC Media Action and Star Radio, Search For Common Ground and Cotton Tree News and partners etc.

Newspapers also provided reports and pictures concerning the spread of the virus. Unlike radio programmes, newspapers target only those who can read. The Ebola messaging is meant for everyone and thus radio being a friendly medium for everyone in Sierra Leon has therefore played a leading role in facilitating dialogue among the public and mobilizing them to uphold all preventive and control measures concerning the virus.

THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA RESPONSE

Global media coverage of the Ebola virus in the sub region and specifically those issues covered in Sierra Leone should be part of the holistic picture of the media response discourse. The coverage of BBC, Aljazeera, VOA and RFI immensely contributed in setting agenda on international interventions by vividly showing the incapacity of the government to handle the disease. They succeeded in framing burning issues using advocacy techniques for donations from individuals and nation-states.  The trend of the coverage changes as the virus continues to rise.

THE REPORTING STYLE OF THE LOCAL MEDIA IN THE RESPONSE

The media has demonstrated civic commitment to a very large extent in the Ebola reportage. Even though there media landscape is inclusive of partisan journalists, commercially motivated reporters and party paid writers, the mass commitment shown by media networks in this process is remarkable. The role of WIMSAL in the Yellow Ribbon campaign with the UN Women, the IRN/SLAJ collaborative training and programming for messaging on Ebola, the BBC Media Action partnership with community radio stations for social dialogue in fighting the virus are highly impact driven.

The SLAJ/IRN “Derb Ebola radio programme” has attracted very good listenership based on the production format and content. This is as a result of the collective knowledge brought together from experience producers, researchers and reporters.  Although at some point the content and steps became very predictive to listeners, which might have rendered it boring persuasive techniques like spicing discussions with drama sustained the audience size. What is obvious again, the SLAJ/IRN radio programme has news in most of its editions. But the news starts with survival and ends with new confirm cases as a way to give hope to the public and encourage everyone to remain zealous. At the same time emphasis was put information and sensitization and not investigation.  The rationale for this is to support NERC, WHO, CDC and other actors to get their messages across, otherwise known as Development Support Communication.  Some researchers or observers describe this episode as a shift from adversarial journalism to advocacy journalism, public or civic journalism.

Radio stations and newspaper organizations were at liberty as far SLAJ decision was to probe the issues independently apart from the joint production programmes of the IRN/SLAJ.  In this way Radio Democracy FM 98.1, Star Radio, The Monologue Radio programme, SLBC radio and television programme engaged service providers and communities to inject some amount of accountability through aggressive interviews. These are ways of pursuing the media facilitative role in public campaign and advocacy.  They provide a platform for views and voices that are critical of authority and the established order.  They give support for drastic change and reform.  The media may also be a voice of criticism in their own right.

Some newspapers still went political in terms of commentaries and editorial despite the general reporting approach suggested in SLAJ meetings.  At some point collaboration and corporation were needed between media related NGOs also and the local media for example the BBC Media Action and SLAJ to foster training and programming.

Several trainings were organized to enhance effective reporting especially the issues in communicating health.  Despite this initiative some reporters deliberately violated the IMC Code of practice especially newspapers who used photos of victims and health workers in a way of stigmatizing them. There were no specific ethical guidelines developed for journalists reporting the disease. On the whole more ethical efforts were made by journalists to enhance mass mobilization and to increase public confidence in all efforts to fight the virus.

MEDIA RESISTED DIVERSION IN ITS REPORTAGE

  • The Monologue saga
  • The procedure of appointing the IMC commissioners
  • The Auditor General’s Report on the initial funds utilized
  • The expulsion and sacking of the VP Sam Sumana
  • The expulsion of Ambassador Ali Bangura

THE RADIO AND TELEVISION TEACHING PROGRAMME

The audio-visual mode of learning through radio and television is part of the major strategic issues in the media response. Schools and colleges were closed in order to prevent the disease; and people were getting older and not younger. Considering the need for kids to be engaged at home, some media practitioners willingly worked with teachers to design and produce instructional and teaching materials for both private and public schools. There are questions about mass access and participation in such learning process but it is remarkable in the response discourse.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Computerization and digitalization are now imperative in every media performance in public discourse. The new media mainly internet communication protocols are part of this development. Multimedia cells phones and iPad have visualized the user generated content approach in public dialogue. In this case users had the chance to learn about the virus and support control measures by informing contact tracers using SMS, Twitter, Facebook and WastApp.  There are ethical pitfalls regarding the issue of privacy and confidentiality.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Accountability is very crucial in my arguments regarding the media response to the Ebola Virus. The media should ensure accountability in public campaigns and development advocacy. The natural first role is that of vigilant informer, which applies mainly to collecting and publishing information of interest to audiences, as well as distributing information on behalf of sources and clients that include governments, commercial advertisers, and private individuals.  The aims of both sources and media are very diverse, including such goals as profit, social missions, and propaganda.  The term “monitorial” includes the notion of providing advance intelligence, advice, warning, and everything of general utility for information seekers.  For example, information about celebrities, sports, fashion, entertain and economic information.  Essentially it applies to the work of journalists, but covers a wide terrain.

This makes the media a watchdog of public life. Therefore lets us look at accountability at three folds:

THE QUALITY OF THE MEDIA ACCOUNT ON THE RESPONSE– the question is “Did the media provide in-depth account on the issues and processes of fighting the virus?”

  • Were the issues in report put into correct context?
  • Were they logically reported?

THE MEDIA HOLDING SERVICE PROVIDERS AND COMMUNITIES ACCOUNTABLE– the question is: “To what extent the media enhanced transparency and accountability in fighting the virus?”

 THE MEDIA ACCOUNTING TO ITS MEMBERS– the question is “How transparent and accountable the media structures are to their members in handling resources given for public information, campaign and mobilization to kick the virus?”

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The creation of a public education secretariat, which should have a health and sanitation education unit for disease prevention and control.
  2. To conduct baseline research on IEC use and media audience survey to reach targeted audience through appropriate channels.
  3. To make the SLAJ/IRN radio programmes much more advocacy oriented and community focused than teaching of listeners about the policy and service providers in the response process. Let testimonies be encouraged from communities and survivors and let them dominate the content with constructive dialogue.

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