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Special report: Restrictions on press freedom impede access to information on Ebola

Members of a UNICEF-supported social mobilization team carry posters with information on Ebola, in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Members of a UNICEF-supported social mobilization team carry posters with information on Ebola, in Freetown, Sierra Leone

REUTERS/Issa Davies/UNICEF/Handout via Reuters

This article was originally published on mfwa.org on 15 October 2014.

Efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have been associated with various forms of press freedom restrictions and attacks on journalists, which continue to hamper the provision of timely and accurate information to the public.

In a special report highlighting the impact of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) notes that the Ebola outbreak has had a significant effect on freedom of expression in West Africa, particularly in the worst-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The report highlights incidents of Ebola-related freedom of expression violations; the challenges with respect to media freedom and professional reportage; and the positive and negative contributions of the media—including social media and bloggers—towards efforts to prevent and contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

According to the MFWA report, in light of the Ebola outbreak, journalists in Liberia have been attacked, harassed, censored and restricted under a state of emergency, which has included curfews and restrictions on general human rights.

The special Ebola-focused report also highlights challenges in Guinea, where three journalists were brutally killed by a mob during a mission to provide information on Ebola, and the situation in Sierra Leone, where officials have adopted measures that have the potential of instilling fear in journalists and deterring independent and impartial reporting.

“The limitations on the freedom of expression as it pertains to community sensitisation about health issues constitute violations not only of the right to freedom of expression, but also of the right to health,” said Anjali Manivannan, the MFWA's Programme Officer for Free Expression Rights Monitoring and Campaigns. “Unfortunately, many restrictions violate the state obligation to respect these rights,” she added.

The situation is further exacerbated by journalists and individuals who have used traditional and social media irresponsibly, thus increasing the spread of misinformation and even causing bodily harm or death.

“The nature of the disease requires intensive and focused public education to contain it,” said Sulemana Braimah, Executive Director of the MFWA. “Thus, it is essential to train the media on how to provide timely and accurate information to the public, particularly in the most vulnerable and underserved rural communities in all countries in the region.”

The MFWA has been involved in meetings with the regional inter-governmental body Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), the West African Health Organisation (WAHO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of the Red Cross to develop media and communication strategies for public education on the disease.

“Currently, the MFWA is rolling out a project to partner with rural and community radio stations across the West Africa region to intensify public education and awareness of the disease,” Braimah said.

For the full report with executive summary, please click here.

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