Article written

  • on 18.09.2014
  • at 02:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Guinea: Pointing microphones against Ebola 0

Brussels – As the world nervously watches the Ebola outbreak from afar, local media in Guinea work around the clock in precarious environments to make sure the population remains informed. A vital force against the crisis, these journalists need funding and international support to step up against the virus.

Ebola has gone viral. Barely a day goes by without an update on the situation – death tolls, ZMAPP, a case in Senegal, another in Europe. Information and rumours spread like wildfire as politicians and international organisations struggle to organise an efficient global response. On Tuesday the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated it would cost nearly one billion US dollars to curb the crisis. President Barack Obama called it “a threat to global security” and pledged greater US involvement, including 3,000 military troops to be deployed in West Africa. So far Ebola has claimed over 2,500 lives, and the WHO fears another 20,000 could be infected within the next eight months.

Guinean media caught in the frenzy

In the midst of this global panic, journalists in Guinea face gruelling work conditions as they continue to spread news and information to local people. The country – where the outbreak began in December 2013 and was officially confirmed in March 2014 – is one of the worst-affected Western African countries with 595 deaths recorded by the WHO last week. Alongside doctors and health officials, local media play a crucial role in the fight against Ebola. “Their role is important because there are many misunderstandings,” the European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, told, “and people need to be properly informed in order to contain the spread”.

Journalists stand on the front line against the outbreak. “The problem is that a large junk of the population doesn’t believe in Ebola,” says Souhel Hajjar, Director General of the independent radio station Radio Nostalgie. “They spread all sorts of rumours, saying it is an illness brought by whites, that it is a story made up to harm people. We focus on raising awareness to make Guineans understand that Ebola is here and kills people every day.”

A dangerous field for local journalists

This is not easy in an environment where even a fleck of spit can be deadly. “When we send journalists to Donka Hospital [the largest public hospital in the country], they know not to touch anything or make contact with anyone but they still do their job,” Mr. Hajjar explains. “They wear gloves, masks and get on with the interviews.” The publication manager of the Guinean news agency La Lance, Assan Abraham Kéïa, tells it can be difficult to find bleach and chlorinated water. “We take many precautions at our headquarters, but chlorinated water is sometimes tricky to get. There is a commission that should distribute these products for free, but unfortunately there are people that store stocks and sell them on the market.”

Yet neither La Lance nor Radio Nostalgie plan to cut back on reporting. In fact, the level of activity has intensified. Ever since Ebola went viral, the Union of Free Radio and Television in Guinea (URTELGUI) has been organising a series of synchronized radio programmes diffused in Conakry and throughout the country. “Even at this moment we are in full synergy,” says Mr. Hajjar. “Fifteen radios have grouped together to simultaneously broadcast the same programme over three different intervals this week: one in French, one in our national language and another with various opinion leaders such as religious figures, artists and foreign specialists.”

A shortage of funds

Public authorities and international organisations are the first to recognize the value of this communication platform. “We seize these opportunities to convey messages,” explains Mamadou Alimou Sow, in charge of information and communication for the EU Delegation in Guinea. “For example, the new Head of Delegation spoke on the radio to explain the EU’s response to Ebola in terms of financial aid, technical inputs and research.” It is therefore surprising no EU funds seem to support Guinean media and their journalists, who are omitted from the latest draft of the EU Comprehensive Response Framework for Ebola. Meanwhile the European Parliament voted a resolution on the EU’s response to the Ebola outbreak this morning. “The parliament will call on EU institutions to support local media hit by the crisis,” declared Cecile Kyenge, member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament and co-president of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly (JPA).

The lack of funding is severely undermining Guinean media. “This week we basically worked for free,” says Mr. Hajjar, “but we cannot do that all the time. What we really need is to deploy more people on the field, and for that we need financial support.” Andris Piebalgs himself stressed the importance of a local media campaign, but in a country where even basic health and sanitary supplies are dangerously scarce it is easy for journalists to slip down the priority line. Still they persevere, driven by a fundamental belief in the benefits of their work. This echoes in Mr. Kéïa ‘s words: “Speaking to patients who have recovered brings tears to my eyes. It is moving and reminds me why spreading the message is so important. Ebola exists, but with the right response it can be cured.”

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: The Media Project

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi