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.

Calgary Herald - - OPINION -

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.

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