Opinion

The Podium | Anne Bennett

Toxic information and the fight against Ebola

A vegetable seller held a leaflet on Ebola from the Congolese Ministry of Health.
Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images/file
A vegetable seller held a leaflet on Ebola from the Congolese Ministry of Health.

Earlier this month, a delegation of health workers and community and religious leaders set out from N’Zerekore, the largest city in Guinea’s Forest Region, for the village of Womé. Four local journalists accompanied the group on what was intended to be a mission to provide information on Ebola. This remote corner of southern Guinea, a once thriving market region thanks to its shared border with Liberia, has been hit hard by the virus.

The group was met by hostile and fearful villagers, who attacked with machetes and clubs. Eight in the delegation were killed. In an interview on Voice of America, Guinea’s prime minister, Mohamed Said Fofanah, explained that villagers in Womé, as elsewhere in the country, are still “intoxicated by information making them believe this sickness does not exist or was created to eliminate them.”

In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, media campaigns about Ebola, scripted by health ministries and international organizations, have been broadcast across FM networks and on the few local television stations. Designed to contribute to public education, the messages have, in some cases, produced the opposite effect. As Jeffrey Stern writes in the current issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in Guinea “the message from the government and the health workers (and local media) had undercut the incentive to cooperate.” The public service announcements fueled, rather than prevented, panic. “People in Guinea were as frightened by the response to Ebola as they were to Ebola itself.”

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The unprecedented Ebola epidemic in West Africa is not just a health crisis. It is also an information crisis. It has exposed not only failures in the local and international response to a deadly epidemic, but the ineffectiveness of using top down messages to reach communities that exist largely in an information blackout. As we develop strategies to address this catastrophe and others like it, more attention needs to be spent understanding how to deliver credible and trustworthy information to populations in crisis.

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Rural radio is a vital lifeline across Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan regions where illiteracy is high and national electrical grids are the exception. A survey conducted in Guinea in April by Fondation Hirondelle, which operates a radio production and training lab in Conakry, confirmed a finding we’ve seen in post-conflict settings across the continent: trust in a media is based on how close and familiar the source is to the population it serves. There’s a Guinean saying that puts it like this: “There is no better expert for a farmer than another farmer who is already convinced.”

In the Guinean survey, limited broadcasting hours, and perceived censorship and self-censorship were big concerns for audiences. Government messaging campaigns were criticized with near unanimity as being ignorant of local culture and idiom, a point that helps explain the failure of much of the official communication on Ebola.

Among the six community radios of the Guinean Rural Radio Network that participated in the survey was Radio N’Zerekore, which employed the journalists murdered in Womé. The on-scene reporting these journalists set out to do is the best example of why the rural radios are valued in their communities. It’s the kind of reporting we’re seeing right now at community radios in Eastern Sierra Leone, where reporters are both collecting first hand accounts, in local languages, and serving as a bridge between the health experts and the population.

There are a number of ways to help this work succeed. Local reporters, often poorly paid and lacking formal training, need the tools to report accurately in chaotic and dangerous situations. Technical solutions can improve access to information in communities where there is no electricity but every family has a mobile phone. We can work with local news organizations to address their biggest challenge: creating a viable business model.

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If we want to save lives in communities ravaged by Ebola, we need to send in doctors and nurses. But let’s also send in the local journalists, trusted sources of news, close to the communities they cover and trained in good journalism. The tragedy at Womé has shown how an absence of understanding can leave a population navigating blindly, and how messages that arrive with the government stamp are met with mistrust. In the same way we’re investing in vaccines, water wells and bed-nets, let’s commit to the long-term viability of local media so that they can explain, illuminate and, in some cases, save lives.

Anne Bennett is executive director of Hirondelle USA, a nonprofit based in Cambridge that supports independent media in post conflict zones.