Seldom has the truth mattered more, to more people
The key work of any global public health campaign is to save lives by providing verified and reliable information to the public about a disease’s origin, spread, incidence; symptoms and treatments; and governmental responses.
That the majority of us now use social media – and have thereby been exposed to a giddying number of inaccurate, unreliable or misleading messages about COVID-19, running from the skeptic to the dystopian – has made that life-saving task difficult. Disinformation about the pandemic has repeatedly created confusion and anxiety about what steps people should take to keep themselves and loved ones safe.
In addition, some governments’ legislation to curb disinformation was, in itself, problematic: with several countries declaring states of emergency or adopting new laws to fight disinformation that resulted in serious restrictions of citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression.
trained in 2021 on COVID-19 coverage through online courses
To combat this disinfodemic, UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme has built on its existing networks and programmes to deliver specific COVID-19 webinars, trainings and capacity building, with countries and regions tailoring their own responses to their own contexts. This included the setting up of a series of ambitious webinars with partners including Oxford University and the Inter-American Court of Human Right and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. This work leveraged UNESCO’s experience delivering trainings in this area since 2013 – from which 23,000 judicial actors and civil society representatives have benefitted.
During the webinars, experts raised awareness of the role of the judiciary in protecting such freedoms.
Perhaps the most stark, current evidence of disinformation is in the global mistrust of the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Such mistrust has consequences not only for individuals and healthcare systems, in hospitalizations and deaths, but also for attempts to halt viral spread and the emergence of new variants. To respond to this risk, UNESCO rolled out a series of courses for journalists on what they need to know in covering COVID-19 vaccines, as part of its #CoronavirusFacts project, whose creation had been made possible by the MDP’s fundraising efforts. As an example, over 30,000 journalists, fact checkers and communicators from 157 countries were trained in 2021 on COVID-19 coverage and security measures, through online courses with University of Texas.
Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic and its restrictions, coupled with a new appetite for information and the amount of unverified information circling around, journalism was re-fashioned overnight. Even the best-oiled news operations struggled to adjust to the realities of news gathering when the virus hit, but in places such as Iraq, and Yemen, where journalists have for years specialized in conflict, the pivot felt even more sudden.
In conflict zones, where healthcare infrastructure is already fragile, the odds against anyone falling critically unwell could be dire. The need for professional and local journalism had never been greater. Yet, knowledge of how to report science stories was low, and the risk of infection borne by journalists themselves, in carrying out their duties, was often high.
In Yemen, UNESCO’s MDP partnered with the regional organization Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) to organize three capacity-building webinars for journalists. It trained journalists in how to keep themselves safe while reporting on the virus, how to cover scientific stories, and how to distinguish between real and ‘fake news’.
In Iraq, the MDP and the #CoronavirusFacts, an European Union-funded project implemented by UNESCO, supported workshops to ensure journalists’ physical safety from the disease and to fight misinformation. These trained around 1, 500 journalists and public officials, with guidelines and training materials specifically tailored for Iraq. One focus was how to use fact checking tools to create accurate, factual reports and not to spread false information from unreliable sources. “Even for journalists, it was so difficult to accept the idea that there was COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic” said Dhea Subhee from UNESCO’s Office in Baghdad.
In East Africa, there were common risks across the region, so trainings were open to journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. There, the focus was more exclusively on journalists’ safety and security, with editors joining webinars to learn and share experiences on the independence of media and the importance of digital, physical, psychological and psychosocial support.
Muthoki Mumo, Representative for Eastern and Southern Africa in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the East African Editors Forum to create solidarity among countries. She stressed that this would give a voice to the plight of other journalists under attack as well as create well-coordinated regional structures and safe havens for journalists who required physical protection.
Then, in 2021, UNESCO’s MDP and #CoronavirusFacts project delivered a three-month long training for journalists and bloggers from across 14 African countries. Journalists were trained to cover health issues in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal who were engaged on how to cover health issues.
It has been a huge battle to ensure that a wide range of people, from judges to journalists, are equipped with the best tools to fight disinformation and ensure freedom of expression. Armed with these tools, the hope is that they can be equipped to use the same rigour and resources when it comes to all content creation. This is particularly urgent as countries such as Palestine and Kenya prepare for elections, where the battle for verifiable and accurate information is vital to democratic outcomes.
Multi-Donor Programme for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP)
The MDP serves to further strengthen UNESCO work at a global, regional, and national levels, by channeling funds towards emerging priorities and the most pressing needs to achieve its mandate on freedom of expression. It enables UNESCO Communication and Information Sector to address complex issues through the design and implementation of holistic medium and long-term interventions at national, regional and global levels. The clear advantage of this mechanism is that it allows UNESCO and its partners to achieve greater impact and sustainability, whilst reducing fragmentation of activities in the same field.