COVID-19 misinformation in spotlight this World Press Freedom Day

The increase of misinformation infecting the news during the COVID-19 pandemic is raising concern as people across the globe prepare to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

This is according to UNESCO’s recent Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19 report which said the “lies have helped pave the path for the infection, and they have sewn mayhem in how societies are responding to the pandemic”.

The World Health Organisation has described the influx of information circulating as an infodemic which is “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

Press Union of Liberia (PUL) secretary-general Musa Kenneh said it is important for journalists to fight misinformation about the virus which he said is mostly found on social media.

Supposed COVID-19 preventative measures and cures have been circulating on social media since the first known novel coronavirus case was identified in December 2019. Africa Check’s coronavirus guide has dispelled myths such as tea drinking or ingesting a lemon and baking soda mix to cure the disease.

“The volume and velocity of false information within the “infodemic” points to the existence of a toxic disinfodemic of disinformation and misinformation,” the UNESCO report said.

The Ethical Journalism Network defines misinformation as false information that is spread, but not created with the intention of causing harm while disinformation is “deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country”.

However, the effect of both misinformation and disinformation around the COVID-19 outbreak can “equally” be as deadly, said the UNESCO report.

The report added that journalists have a key role in providing credible information in the midst of the infodemic as well as combat myths and rumours.

Federation of Somali Journalists secretary-general Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu said journalists need to be more objective during the COVID-19 pandemic because spreading false information can worsen the pandemic.

“For instance, there are traditional healers who claim they treated patients with COVID-19 and later showed no symptoms, such myths are dangerous since we know so far there is no drug to treat this virus and virus can be only contained vaccination, so this kind of news media should be so careful. There are people who say the disease is from God to non-Muslims and encouraging people to keep on their routine life,” he said.

The UNESCO report said while information empowers, the disinfodemic disempowers, and it “endangers lives and leads to confusion and discord”.

Many African governments have put in place regulations to curb the disinfodemic around COVID-19. However, in some instances it has ironically gagged the free flow of information about the pandemic.

The International Press Institute has been tracking media freedom violations related to COVID-19 coverage. Numerous press working in Africa have faced violations that include arrests, censorship, and physical attacks for their work during the pandemic.

“One of the problems here in Somalia is that through the influx of misinformation, the government is restricting the access to information [to] the media [who] feed the public.

“This may be due to a lack of awareness of the realities surrounding COVID-19 pandemic and all other information related to the coronavirus. People can protect themselves when they receive information, but if they don't, it's a big problem,” Moalimuu said.

In Liberia, solicitor general Counselor Sayma Syrenius Cephus threatened to shut down media institutions caught spreading falsehood and seize their equipment at a COVID-19 update on April 29 in the country’s capital of Monrovia, according to All Africa.

PUL said such a threat is intended to intimidate the media and “force journalists into self-censorship” in a statement responding to Cephus’ remarks.

“Although there may be some bad apples among us, we are yet to get any information of such as we are all concerned about the eradication of the virus which has disrupted the social life of the people including journalists,” Kenneh told frayintermedia.

According to UNESCO, World Press Freedom Day “acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics”.

The organisation’s report notes that the COVID-19 crisis may have a “long-term impact” on access to information and press freedom.

However, it added that this may be the opportune time to realise the value of journalism as well as “as a moment for strengthening news media now and in the years come”.

Find UNESCO’s report here.

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