| Maria Herd |
WASHINGTON (dpa) – Liberian journalist Maureen Sieh began her career in Monrovia at her uncle’s newspaper, the Daily Observer, which had its office burned to the ground several times for exposing corruption and human rights abuses.
One of the attacks was for a story Sieh wrote about a man who was arrested and killed in 1989, during Liberia’s first civil war.
That didn’t stop her from pursuing her career in journalism.
Sieh travelled to the borders of Ivory Coast and Guinea to interview civil war refugees. Her work earned her a Fulbright Fellowship and took her to the United States, where she graduated with a master’s degree in journalism.
She later covered city government in Syracuse, New York, wrote about refugees in Sudan and directed a media training organisation for the Peace Corps in Morocco.
Sieh has been back in her homeland of Liberia, the heart of the dangerous Ebola epidemic, passing along her skills and passion for storytelling to fellow Liberian journalists.
She has been sending journalists to talk to workers at treatment centres and quarantine checkpoints, and families of victims, to write about the people affected by the epidemic.
One of these stories may have saved hundreds of lives.
Journalist Gloria Tamba wrote an article that Sieh was proud to describe as a “success story”.
It was published in the same newspaper where Sieh got her start, the Daily Observer – now the largest newspaper in Monrovia.
Tamba wrote about a quarantine checkpoint in Bomi County, outside of Monrovia, where nurses were checking travellers’ temperatures for a fever – the first symptom of Ebola.
The problem was that they were re-using three manual thermometers.
The nurses repeatedly used the thermometers on the travellers, potentially transm-itting Ebola or other viruses that spread through sweat or saliva.
The story, “Nurses Use 3 Thermometers on Thousands”, went viral online and prompted non-governmental organisations to donate digital thermometers to the Health Ministry.
“That really helped out, but there is still a need for more of that training,” Sieh told dpa in an interview in Washington DC.
While the international media’s coverage of Ebola has focused on death tolls, travel restrictions and the development of a vaccine, little attention has been paid to the role of the local media in educating people on how to protect themselves against virus, or perhaps doing the opposite – perpetuating fears and false rumours.
“Any time you have a major pathogenic threat, you have a problem of getting people to have confidence in the information that they’re getting,” said Steve Morrison, an expert on global health at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
“And the media play a huge role. The media can stoke panic, distrust and hysteria.”
Sieh saw first-hand the confusion created by local Liberian media publishing misconceptions about Ebola when the epidemic took hold there in March.
“Every time I read the papers, I see things that could have been told differently,” she said. “Until you have someone who is constantly critiquing what’s being published and what’s being produced, you’re going to keep getting the same story.”
Improving the quality of local media is one of the main goals of the project that Sieh leads in Liberia, the Civil Society and Media Leadership programme (CSML).
Funded by USAID, CSML mentors and provides equipment for 30 civil society groups, two media organisations, 30 newspapers and 19 community radio stations throughout nine of Liberia’s 15 counties.
The consumption of bush meat – wild animals like rats, bats and monkeys that are traditionally hunted and sold at local markets – has been the source of previous outbreaks and is also likely the cause of this epidemic.
When warnings were first issued on the hazard of eating bush meat, the media coverage focused on the government trying to take away bush meat from the people – not that it could potentially infect them with Ebola.
“That was the slant. There was all this confusion and controversy over why they want to take your meat from you,” Sieh said.
Some newspapers used screenshots from fictional Hollywood movies on Ebola or horror movies, without saying where the photos came from, inaccurately depicting Ebola victims with blood dripping from their faces.
“You can see why we would have people in denial or people running away,” said Sieh’s colleague Lyn Gray from CSML.
At the beginning of the epidemic, many Liberians refused to obey quarantines, disclose contacts or report that their family members were infected.
They didn’t trust the government or the information they were receiving, which helped the virus to spiral further out of control.
Sieh and Gray knew they needed to take action, stop the misconceptions in the media, and educate Liberians on the virus to prevent transmission. They organised an Ebola awareness forum for journalists and community leaders to learn about the virus from the Health Ministry.
Nonetheless, instead of asking the health minister to identify which fluids transferred the virus, for example, the journalists were demanding to know why the ministry had not supplied enough beds.
“They were looking for the ‘I got you’ kind of statements and accusation that could make the headline, rather than understanding the whole gist of the story,” Gray said.
CSML often provides Liberian journalists with their first formal professional training, but the organisation is not alone in mentoring and donating media equipment.
The media training organisation Together Liberia was founded by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications professor Ken Harper to not only help Liberians raise their journalistic standards, but to study the challenges of working in the media sector of a post-conflict environment.
A partner media outlet, Front Page Africa, has local journalists reporting on how Ebola is transmitted, how to avoid it and the realities of the virus.
They have also been traveling to rural areas where the virus first took hold and spread. The lack of media in these areas, unsafe roads, and reports of attacks on Ebola aid workers have contributed to under-reporting of the virus in rural counties.
In August, Harper coordinated the development of a data visualisation tool to keep track of Ebola infections and deaths for Liberia’s Ministry of Information.
“Visualising Ebola in Liberia” offers interactive graphs of Ebola statistics, the toll on health care workers, and a map of the cases per county.
Harper’s students analysed the demographics of the website’s users, and found that more than 80 per cent of the web traffic came from the United States.
Harper attributes this to the large Liberian diaspora in the United States and conversely the limited internet access in Liberia.
“Often it is not uncommon for people here to go online, get information, and then call back to their village in Liberia and tell their relatives what is happening,” he said.
Only four per cent of Liberians have internet access. Some community radio stations – the only source of media in much of rural Liberia – are part of that four per cent. They have also accessed Harper’s site as a source to broadcast data.
Harper describes his website as “one piece of the communication chain” in which Liberians receive information.
“It’s a point of knowledge that could then be disseminated through less complex means and delivered to folks who don’t have this kind of technology,” he said.
“Visualising Ebola in Liberia” was consistently updated for a few months until the government stopped sending statistics.
“The Liberian government unfortunately has some internal struggles,” said Harper. “They’re good at emailing each other (documents), not so great at helping populate the site that they asked us to create.”
The few Liberians who do go online often use Facebook to tell their stories about Ebola.
“There are some really beautiful stories. I wish the Liberian media were telling some of the stories the way people are telling their own stories on Facebook,” Sieh said.
One of the journalists CSML trained was recently in the rural county of Lofa, close to where the epidemic first broke out. He posted Facebook updates following the fate of a local mayor who contracted Ebola and died.
“He gets it,” Sieh said of the journalist.