Africa APPG - Combating Ebola: has the media helped or hindered?

Tuesday, 9 December 2014
Hetty Bailey (Africa APPG Research Coordinator)


Image credit: Huffington Post

On the 8th December 2014, the Africa APPG together with the Global Health APPG and BBC World Service held a panel discussion with Parliamentarians to discuss the role of the media in the Ebola outbreak. Below is a brief overview; the full recording of the event is available here.

Among those in attendance were Paul Burstow MP, Mark Durkan MP, Meg Hillier MP, Baroness Armstrong, Lords Collins, Baroness Masham, Lord Ribeiro and Lord Watson. Lord Chidgey, Chair of the Africa APPG chaired the discussion.

The panellists included Solomon Mugera – Editor, BBC Africa, Dr Titilola Banjoko – healthcare proffesional and Trustree at the Royal African Society, Dr Michael Edelstein - Centre on Global Health Security, Chatham House and Tulip Mazumdar – Global Health Correspondent, BBC News.

There has been criticism of parts of the domestic and international media of their reporting of the Ebola outbreak and and it is argued this has fed ‘Ebola prejudice’ and ignorance. In the countries affected, exaggeration in the parts of the local printed press is common and myths, conspiracy theories abound. Solomon Mugera suggested that the BBC World Service was in a unique position as a widely trusted source of news across West Africa and is working to counter the myths in circulation and broadcast messages of survival.

Dr Titilola Banjoko, an experienced healthcare proffesional and Trustee of RAS, expressed concern that current narratives on Ebola in parts of the international media reinforce the negative image that Africans are not able to help themselves and are dependent on the West for help. She was critical of the lack of reporting of the African effort in mainstream media and implored the BBC to endeavour to get these stories out. She drew attention to the effort on the ground largely carried out by local people, the hundreds of health workers from Nigeria and Uganda and the considerable funds donated by South Africa.

Further, she argued that internationally there is a perception of Ebola as being ‘black’ and ‘African’ despite that there is greater distance from Sierra Leone to South Africa than there is from Sierra Leone to the UK. She recounted stories of 'Ebola prejudice' in the UK including one of the Nigerian on a zero hours contract that was asked to stay away from work and of the Liberian worker who had not been home for 25 years being sacked for fear he may have Ebola.

She argued that clearer stories of what Ebola is not need to get out through the both local and international media. Lack of knowledge and understanding of what the disease is not allows space for myths, conspiracy theories and prejudices to develop which adds to the confusion.

Tulip Mazumdar quoted Dr Margaret Chan of the World Health Organisation who said that in addition to rapid international support and funds, more important than anything else was the need for community engagement. Ebola spreads at the community level and has been described as a ‘disease of kindness’; commonly passed whilst caring for loved ones.

Tulip, who had recently returned from reporting on the ground in rural Sierra Leone, expressed concern over the limited capacity of treatment centres and that consequently community understanding of the disease is essential. Current advice is to go to a treatment centre, but assessment and treatment centres are often hundreds of kilometres away and many people are too sick to make the journey. When people do follow the advice, once they arrive at the treatment centres they are often turned away as the centre is full. Tragically, family members accompanying the infected person often catch the virus during the journey and then take this back to their communities.

The local media and especially radio is able penetrate communities through communicating messages on where to go, symptoms to look out for, how Ebola is spread and how to avoid it, especially when caring for a sick relative in a language and accent they recognise and trust. The BBC Wold Service and Media Action are working with local FM stations to try to disseminate accurate and up to date practical information in a way that does not spread fear and prejudice but that explains and supports.

The international media should report responsibly to avoid feeding prejudice or the damaging and negative discourse that Africa is not able to help itself- positive stories on the regional effort need to be reported. Community buy-in is the only way to get the disease under control. The wider media has the potential to assist in this effort through supporting local radio and localising information by delivering messages through trusted community figures and sources rather than by impersonal outsiders.