Truth in the age of COVID-19
Mali offers proof of what fact-based journalism can do to save lives, Michael Cooke and Peter Donolo write.
In terms of COVID-19, Mali — so far — ranks far down the list of the world’s affected nations.
But in a vital related struggle, the West African nation is very much on the front lines: the fight against what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation” related to the disease.
In many ways, the spread of coronavirus myths is part of the larger scourge of fake news; not a new phenomenon, but one that has been turbocharged by digital technology.
But coronavirus misinformation has a special virulence — it undermines the work of health officials globally and puts entire communities in danger. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Journalists in Mali are already conditioned to working amid one of the most violent jihadist insurgencies on the African continent.
Now these committed, resourceful and brave community-based journalists are using the skills and credibility they’ve honed during Mali’s eight-year internal conflict to report on COVID-19 and combat fake news about the pandemic.
We met with a number of these journalists and civil society activists in Mali last month in support of a pilot project sponsored by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and run by the Canadian-based Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).
People like Fanta Diakite, a Jhr-trained journalist in Bamako working in Radio Klédu, reported on false information about so-called dangerous vaccines that resulted in many mothers avoiding routine vaccinations for their babies.
Dado Camara and her all-women staff at the newspaper L’annonceur — also trained and supported by JHR — highlight issues that matter to Malian women. For example, a recent issues series on the price of butane gas for cooking resulted in government action to stop price gouging on this vital household staple.
L’annonceur has taken this same practical approach to its coverage of COVID-19, exposing dangerous sanitary conditions at the main slaughterhouse in Bamako. The larger national media followed. The result: a cleanup.
Awa Dicko, a 16-year old activist and a member of Mali’s innovative Youth Parliament, participated in a workshop we led during our visit. She’s joined the fight with her own Unicef-sponsored video debunking the myth that the virus spreads through drinking water.
JHR’S coronavirus training in Mali and elsewhere in Africa is rooted in our experience in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over the past decade JHR staff, trainees and alumni worked with journalists to counter misinformation about the Ebola epidemic.
Here’s what we learned:
Keep the public health messaging as clear as
possible — and acknowledge that, as information about the virus changes, our understanding evolves.
Share community concerns about how pandemic
■ responses are affecting their lives and human rights, and ensure officials respond to those concerns.
Work with local expertise and trusted leaders’
voices to debunk misconceptions and misinformation about the virus.
Prioritize stories of real hope: those of survivors
■ and of smart community responses.
In the words of Moro Siaka Diallo, the project co-ordinator of JHR’S program in Mali:
“Every day I wake up and I meet with Malians denying the existence of COVID-19 in our country. I try to inform them on the regular death toll of the pandemic at home and elsewhere. We can succeed when we individually realize the virus exists everywhere and it is causing death no matter who you are.”
In Canada, it’s a truism that a well-informed citizenry is a fundamental safeguard of democracy. That’s why professional, fact-based and credible journalism is so vital. It’s also why it’s a fundamental building block for countries — like Mali — that are striving to create the kind of political, social and economic stability we take for granted.
It also turns out that at moments like the one we’re living now, this same kind of journalism not only builds stronger societies — it can literally save lives.