Unfamiliarity, limited information, and official obstacles have made reporting on the pandemic an uphill struggle for Ethiopian journalists.
Spending five nights inside a quarantine center in Addis Ababa, journalist Haimanot Ashenafi had one of the most eventful experience of her life, leading her to make some serious observations.
Last May, she was quarantined after learning that her travel to the Somali region’s border towns of Dewale and Togowchale was a potential risk to contracting the coronavirus. Haimanot and her colleague at the Ethiopia Insider, a rising Amharic language news website with investigative contents, went to these areas in order to cover the government’s COVID-19 response at the borders and hear the voices of those Ethiopians that were returning from Djibouti and Somalia. At that time, COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia were increasingly linked to these returnees, as 10 of the patients in the first daily double digit tally were among these returnees.
After returning from Somali to Addis Ababa, Haimanot decided to quarantine. A reporter with an academic background in law, she used her uncertain days in quarantine to observe and develop a “quarantine memoir”. Upon leaving the center after testing negative for COVID-19, her experiences appeared in a popular article on Ethiopia Insider, “The Journalist’s Quarantine Days”.
The article highlighted the psychological impact of being in the quarantine center and the first phase of responses to suspected COVID-19 patients when there were many unknowns. It also critiqued how the government’s lavish spending of limited public resources did not account for the possible length of the pandemic.
This proved to be true, as COVID-19 patients have since been complaining about the lack of food and other basic services. In addition, the memoir also touched upon the shock and pandemic-related discrimination within her neighborhood, as well as the frustration of the suspects brought to the center and their families who tried to visit them.
However, this quarantine experience was not only about the medical and human side of COVID-19. For Haimanot, this experience also showed the need to break the existing modes of reporting and the importance of reevaluating how the media and journalists develop their storytelling.
“With this pandemic, I have come to learn that individual and human stories are somehow very powerful to our media reporting,” she told Ethiopia Insight.
Since Ethiopia had its first case in mid-March, there have been a regular stream of stories and news about COVID-19 from local outlets. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians also check the social media accounts of Lia Tadesse, the health minister, and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) for information about the situation.
Although there is disagreement as to whether or not the media has covered the pandemic in a diverse, critical, and accurate manner, some have argued that journalists covered COVID-19 in a suitably nuanced manner. Others say that, beyond the reporting of daily numbers, stories about the pandemic have not been interesting.
As a media analyst with a decade of experience in teaching journalism at Haramaya University and working as a private media consultant, Sileshi Yilma has been monitoring how local mainstream media have reported on COVID-19.
Although the coverage has helped enhance the public’s understanding about the virus, Sileshi believes that the content has had “a narrow focus ,and at times, limited to reports on official numbers”. For Sileshi, such a myopic approach overlooks important interplaying factors that could further enhance the public’s understanding of the pandemic and its various dimensions.
“We rarely find a story with coherent and well-researched trend analysis, explaining the alarming spread and impact under various scenarios, which can help decision-makers,” he told Ethiopia Insight. He says good content should answer what is behind and beyond the daily numbers.
Arguably an example of that is “A Moment of Silence,” Maya Misikr’s deep and intriguing article from 14 June in Addis Fortune, a private English weekly newspaper that has been operating for two decades. Maya, its deputy editor-in-chief, has been one of the foremost journalists covering the pandemic. In this piece, she shed light on the “human stories beyond numbers” of at least six individuals who lost their lives to COVID-19. Although a challenging investigation, the article provided a much-needed insight into the mortality trend of the pandemic and its impact on families.
“Not everybody is equally represented. That is just the way the world has been working so far. The Ethiopian media is important in making sure that people that have been impacted by COVID are getting coverage and explainining what is happening in different sectors of the society,” she reflected to Ethiopia Insight.
Although Maya’s observation and coverage were crucial for understanding COVID19-‘s impact, her work also reflects back on the journalistic gaps that are found elsewhere in the media. But the COVID-19 reporting has not been a content issue alone. For others, the absence of a nuanced approach can also be attributed to the lack of journalists with a medical background.
As Ethiopia Insight learned from discussions with individual journalists, the media did not routinely cover medical issues before the pandemic. Although medical discussions and live question and answer programs have been part of the landscape, the role of journalists in these programs have usually been one of hosting a medical expert.
Furthermore, even though the media has started to attract graduates from the fields of economics, law, and political science, ‘medical journalism’ has not been equally prioritized. As such, without the basic knowledge on medical issues, journalists run the risk of overlooking important factors that can inform readers.
On the other hand, given that the media industry is already struggling with a financial crisis, covering the pandemic has become a challenge for both journalists and their employers. Fithawok Yewondwossen is the chairperson of the Editors Guild of Ethiopia, a young association of editors working in the mainstream media, and the Editor-in-Chief of Ahadu Tv, a local broadcaster. He argues that the financial crisis is beginning to affect broader coverages:
“Although the media is informing the public about the basics of COVID-19, its financial constraints have limited it from going outside the capital city and observing the trend and stories from other regions,” he told Ethiopia Insight.
It is important to note that COVID-19 has already sobered this infant industry by draining its advertising revenues. In the four months since May, two private television channels, JTV and LTV, stopped broadcasting due to bankruptcy.
Furthermore, Fithawok says that the nature of this pandemic also hindered the process of information-gathering needed to bring insightful news and in-depth stories. According to him, the media has been working under numerous pressures, specifically at the early stages of COVID-19s arrival:
“Not many people or officials have been willing to give interviews, as they tend to believe journalists are potentially exposed to the virus,” he said, arguing that this is specifically the case with those media outlets that heavily rely on visual content.
This challenge to obtain up-to-date information has also been exacerbated by the difficulty in sourcing important stories from rural areas, as both the media and the government have paid undue attention to the country’s major city, as is often the case.
In this regard, Ethio-Telecom provision of COVID-19 preventive messages during phone calls was successful in reaching a larger segment of the rural population than, for example, television programs. Furthermore, a recent study found such transmissions to be the only means for COVID-19 information reaching some rural communities in Ethiopia.
For Sileshi, the fact that even the bigger broadcasters have not exploited their relatively strong human and financial resources is cause for concern, and he urges these outlets to link-up with universities and community radios in order to address the information gap.
” Furthermore, there is more potential in academic institutions as well, and the radios are closer to the most remote parts of the society,” Sileshi said.
There are still non-news contents helping the understanding as medical experts and policy insiders comment from several perspectives of the pandemic on popular platforms like the Addis Standard, an online media, and a lunch time discussion on Fana Television, a party-affiliated broadcaster.
Content including telephone-based and expert-driven news has also been a feature. For example, Sheger FM, a private station, has news hours three times a day where it tries to get questions and tip offs regarding COVID-19 explained by health experts, usually independent professionals. At times, officials also comment. On 22 June, Sheger also exposed a nightclub in Bole that secretly sells alcohol and shisha pipes in contravention of the state of emergency. Two days later, city police closed it down.
Ermias Mulugeta, Editor-in-Chief of Addis Maleda, an Amharic weekly private newspaper, started off optimistic about reporting on COVID-19. However, an experience from mid-April cautioned him to the challenges of accessing relevant information.
Addis Maleda’s repeated request for comments regarding the congested and weak screening system at Bole airport, as well as the absence of an effective follow-up process for those quarantining in hotels, went unanswered by the Ministry of Health. “Access to information has always been a challenge for the Ethiopian media. The pandemic has only added to the existing problems,” Ermias told Ethiopia Insight.
In addition to this lack of transparency, the state of emergency, which was phased out this month, constrained access to COVID-19 information. What has now continued is a system in which information is extremely centralized and only provided after the express permission of the committee coordinating the national response.
Maya shares Ermias’s concerns.
She says her COVID-19 reporting has not been all easy, as she has been repeatedly challenged by the health authorities’ lack of response or late response. “It is understandable that there is a lot of pressure on the health institutions working on COVID-19 at the moment. But at the same, information is a very critical part of fighting the pandemic and making sure that people have the right information is important” says Maya. “At the end of the day, we are not operating here without the understanding that this is a lot to handle.”
Even after the termination of the state of emergency, there are still strict procedures when it comes to accessing COVID-19 information in Ethiopia, as journalists have to fill out a formal request, jump through other bureaucratic hoops, and have to wait even longer for a response.
Fithawok believes that such a centralized approach not only impacts the media’s access to information, but also how it understands and communicates the characteristics of the virus to the public. He recalls how the state of emergency interfered in a media training session that was scheduled.
“The health professionals we invited to an event from regions and abroad had to delay and cancel their appearance because they had to get the permission from the committee at the center. They can give you no information or expertise unless they get the green light” he said.
Furthermore, the government has also directly controlled the flow of COVID-19 information into the public domain. Ethiopia Insight has learned of claims from some in the private media that the government has restrained recovered COVID-19 patients, including preventing the first recoveree, a pharmacist from Adama, from giving interviews. While there have been stories of COVID-19 recoveries in state media, the government scrutinized them first.
Still, the government’s communication has not been all bleak. Besides the daily figures of new infections, recoveries, and mortalities of the pandemic, the Public Health Emergency Operation Center (PHEOC) of the Ethiopian Public Health Institute publishes a weekly COVID-19 bulletin, which not only provides official figures to explain the national response to COVID-19 but also shares international findings about the pandemic. Furthermore, the EPHI has prepared trainings on pandemic communication for media based in regional states.
Haimanot also believes that information-hoarding is a problem that is continuing in the pandemic. Although reports on the government’s response are released and daily figures are provided, she says that “the government should also embrace and include reports from independent institutions that are assessing the national trend.”
Nonetheless, beyond governments deciding to limit the media’s access to information, they also have the opportunity to muzzle critical journalists and determine what is false news. As such, critical journalists can be indirectly liable for critical assessments of the country’s COVID-19 response, especially if they do not use official quotes or obtain the necessary permission from the government. The March arrest of Yayesew Shimelis, a sharp government critic and journalist now on bail awaiting trial, demonstrates the dangers after he reported that the government was preparing 200,000 graves for COVID victims.
A clearer example of the phenomenon was the accusation leveled against Addis Admas, one of the oldest privately-owned Amharic newspapers. On 6 June, it reported research estimating that “over 8.5 million people are likely to contract the coronavirus and fatalities may rise to over 26,000 by November 2020.” Although the paper stated its source as being “a finding by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute”, the latter debunked it as ” false information” a week after.
Against these odds, pandemic journalism in Ethiopia has mainly survived due to reporters who are risking their health to tell the stories of those most affected by the pandemic. Whether it is reporting on those suffering from the death of their loved ones, or the painful stories of Ethiopian returnees being quarantined in border towns, covering the pandemic has been an inspiring, yet risky, adventure.