Behind the Frontlines, Young Journalists Stand Against COVID-19 Misinformation

East Africa, July 2020 – When COVID-19 was first identified as a global pandemic, Africa was the last continent to be hit by its impact. Yet the continent was expected to prove the most vulnerable to both its short and long term devastating effects.

A proliferation of online and offline sources of information joined the race to try to fill the information gaps about a disease that was yet to be fully understood. A cure was nowhere in sight, rumors spread, speculations followed and anyone with internet access or a smart phone considered themselves journalists. Soon enough a crisis of misinformation and disinformation erupted across the world.

In the East Africa region, measures were swiftly put in place to contain the spread of COVID -19. However, as rumors and myths spread that Africans were immune and that traditional remedies including tea, garlic and lemon were sufficient as cure from the disease, young professional journalists soon found themselves propelled to the frontlines of the battle against fake news.

Marion Apio, a senior year journalism student at Makarere University in Uganda was one of many to fall prey to fake news.

“When COVID-19 came people were just taking in every kind of information they would come across. With social media, everyone is a journalist, if you are in about 6 What’s app groups you receive a lot of shared communication,” she said.

I remember seeing a Facebook post showing the Minister of Health saying Uganda will be reporting its third victim of COVID -19 and I didn’t really care so I just shared it. Later on, I reposted it only to realize that the language is fake, and that I realized that I was doing the one thing I didn’t want people to do, repost misinformation.

Your intent is to share with your loved ones and you want them to stay safe and I am the communicator in the family so yes I have done it many times prior to taking the fact checking training,” she said.

Marion Apio, MCI fellow ©Photo courtesy of MCI

Along with 26 fellow future journalists across Uganda, Marion participated in a practical virtual training on fact checking and digital verification of information relating to COVID-19 pandemic. The online workshop, held on 28 and 29 July 2020, was organized by Media Challenge Initiative (MCI) with the aim to strengthen capacities of young journalists to debunk false stories, and to deconstruct fake news, disinformation, and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda.

Nelson Rotino, and Marion are university acquaintances. They were both selected as MCI fellows to attend the training.

“Information is a lifeline during times such as these, we have the vessels, in my case community radio from which we receive all the information that comes in. But also as a journalist, we are that person who puts it out there for people to hear” Said Nelson.

“We are that person in between. And in times of crisis we act as the sieve to filter out all that is not credible”, he added.

Nelson, or as Marion addresses him, Roti, worries about the effects that the democratization of information could have in times of global crisis.

“Before, you could only get your information from mainstream newspapers or you don’t know anything at all. But now with the internet, you find all these facts and alternative facts and fake news,” he said.

The MCI-led fact checking webinar was supported by UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa as part of an overarching COVID-19 response commitment to promoting reliable, fact-based information and deciphering of COVID-19 disinformation through campaignsMIL CLICKS and GAP-MIL initiatives.

Seventy young people, drawn from 36 youth organizations across 16 counties in Kenya, have also been trained on how to utilize and integrate Media and Information Literacy (MIL) competencies in their engagement and participation in civic activities in Kenya. This has been part of ongoing key action of UNESCO’s strategy to promote knowledge societies and foster the development of free, independent and pluralistic media and universal access to information and knowledge for good governance.

In Rwanda, UNESCO, in partnership with Rwanda Media Commission (RMC)  supported training of  sixty-six journalists to promote public access to fact-based information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNESCO also supported community media and related networks to access quality audio resources for broadcast, and develop creative animations on COVID -19 to be used as public service announcements (PSAs) for dissemination on digital media platforms, thereby ensuring access to fact based, authentic, verified, learning materials for translation and broadcast to the public during the pandemic in Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.

Bukenya Ephraim, an MCI fellow and media studies graduate in Uganda admits to having not just contributed to the spread of false news, but more dangerously, mistaking rumors for facts. He didn’t take protection measures seriously, which, now in retrospect, could have cost him his life or the life of others.

“Recently in the wake of COVID-19, there was a lot of misinformation and unverified information going round on social media and I found myself falling for some especially when they said that black people will not be affected by COVID-19. It gave me false confidence and my behavior was not cautious,” he recalls.

“Then I stumbled on a news report stating that Black Americans were dying in large numbers because they thought they were not susceptible. But the damage was already done. I wasn’t wearing masks, washing my hands or keeping my distance. Luckily for me, I got curious and I dug deeper and found out that I was misinformed.”

Victoria Mary Kasozi, journalism student at UMCAT School of Journalism and Mass Communication, joins the MCI fellows’ conversation. Six of the fellows were gathered to discuss follow-up projects after the fact checking training. Victoria, works with a number of TV and online stations in Uganda.

“Most of the time, I would pick a newspaper; I would take a story from there; I would ask to follow up to develop the story but some TV stations cannot facilitate resources to go for follow up. So you find your story without enough sources to make it credible. That’s when fact checking becomes indispensable for your credibility,” she said.

“Only now, after being trained, do I realize that many of my stories were reliant on opinions and predictions and I unknowingly misrepresented them as facts.”

Another MCI fellow Dan Ayebare recalls how prior to the training, he would always resort to random internet research to solicit facts and statistics from his COVID-19 coverage. “It’s what we all used to do, but now I won’t be part of the bandwagon anymore,” he added.

Mr. Abaas Mpindi, Media Challenge Initiative (MCI), Chief Executive Officer, explained that all across Africa, fact checking is the new age skill that every journalist must have. Now with COVID-19, the need to empower journalists to combat misinformation which usually starts with a myth but then spreads like wildfire finding fertile grounds on the internet, is quite urgent.

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