Opinion | Reporting on COVID-19, unethical headline on Juba Monitor newspaper should be condemned
Before I delve into discussing whether it is unethical or not the way Juba Monitor reported the first COVID-19 confirmed positive case in the country, allow me to say that the Coronavirus pandemic is a Global pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the world. This pandemic has overrun and overwhelmed the health infrastructure of most of the developed countries in the world ranging from Asia, Europe and the USA.
The Coronavirus is deadly and doesn’t know geographical boundaries, race, color, nationality or tribe. Neither does it have any consideration to any social or financial standing, gender or age.
COVID-19 that started in Wuhan in China rapidly spread to different countries across the world from Asia, Europe, America and Africa. South Sudan was the latest African Country to announce its first confirmed COVID-19 positive case on Sunday 5th April 2020. The country’s First Vice President H.E. Dr. Riek Machar Teny announced at a media conference that South Sudan had confirmed its first COVID-19 positive case of a foreign national aged 29 working for the United Nations. According to the presser, the UN staff flew into the country on 28th February 2020 from Netherlands via Addis Ababa.
Subsequently, the Juba Monitor newspaper in its Monday 6th April 2020 edition of Vol. 9, Issue No. 1923 carried the story on its front-line page headlined in red bold font, “FOREIGNER First Coronavirus case in Juba”.
The headline received critique from many social media users. For me, this is an example of an unfortunate headline making its way in one of our national newspapers in the country. And this is simply why, the focus should be on the new virus and what is in place to combat it and not the specifics of the infected, albeit it is also important.
Reporting a case after most of the world has already reported cases, including all our neighbours, should have already placed us at a vantage point. From this point, we should already know that sooner than later South Sudan will report a case or cases. The whole world is now battling to contain, combat and prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. The focus is not so much on who is infected but on efforts against its spread. This should be the focus of the media too.
It is morally inappropriate in my view to shift the reporting focus from a first confirmed positive COVID-19 case in the country to highlighting the nationality of the patient in the headline, as if to say, South Sudanese are exempt, rather than spotlighting where she could have possibly contracted the virus, who are those she came in contact with, whether the contacts have been traced and quarantined or not and what are measures can be taken to contain the spread further. This foreigner aspect only exemplifies the notion of the ‘other’, which more often than not pits a group against another.
From my news writing class, I learned of the inverted pyramid method of writing a news article. This method ensures that the most important piece of information is given prominence at the top as it narrows to the lesser important information towards the bottom. The Press Statement by the High-Level Taskforce described her as ‘a 29-year-old foreigner who flew into the country from Netherlands through Addis Ababa’. This description calls for caution when dealing with a story of this magnitude. Caution on drafting the headline and deciding which information is most crucial and which is less important.
Here are some examples of how the headline could have been framed, “South Sudan confirms first COVID-19 case; COVID-19 is here; First COVID-19 case confirmed in the country….and so on” there can be as many variations as possible. The Continuation title on page two of the paper would have been better as headline.
Many countries around the world conceal the identity or any information that may put the lives of those who contract the virus at risk e.g. their names, where they stay and work regardless of their nationality; but other countries reveal partial identities of those who contract the virus in their countries. Kenya, for instance, has confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 that include foreign nationals Europeans, Asians, Africans and Kenyan nationals but they have chosen not to reveal the names and place of work of those infected. Each country adopts a policy that best serves its interests and that of its citizens in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain patient’s rights and privacy.
The Media Authority the body mandated to regulate media operations in the country should condemn and reprimand Juba Monitor newspaper to for publishing this unethical headline on its Vol. 9, No. 1923 published on Monday 6th April 2020.
This kind of headline is dangerous and has the potential to trigger hate speech, fear among the expatriate community, anxiety and xenophobia against foreigners working in different INGOs, NGOs and the private sector in South Sudan. It is important to note that the story itself was well reported say for the headline.
The media should responsibly report on the COVID-19 pandemic as a Global issue that affects all humanity regardless of nationality, race, color or gender. I therefore with all due respect beg to reiterate that the headline was unethically and unprofessionally framed. Journalism students should learn that the freedom of expression and media is not absolute especially when it infringes the rights of other people or paint them in bad picture.
The Media Authority should therefore note that this kind of headline has the potential to incite not only hate speech but hatred against foreign nationals working in the country and the institutions they work for. And as a result, this may reflect a negative image about the country’s media and its people. The Media Authority should ensure the media houses don’t violate the media laws and report fairly. Media houses need to be guided to professionally report on the pandemic. The Media Authority Regulations on Broadcasting Media, 2018; issued under Section 67 of the Media Authority Act, 2013 in sub-section 14 (1) on Discrimination states that “the broadcasting Media must avoid prejudicial of pejorative reference to a person’s race, ethnicity, color, religion or to any physical or mental illness or disability”.
Other media organizations like Association of Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS) should lobby for resources with the media development partners like USAID, the EU, UNESCO, NPA, INTERNEWS and other media focused INGO with the assistance of World Health Organization (WHO) and Ministry of Health to train journalists to effectively report the COVID-19 pandemic. These types of technical trainings are crucial at this time to equip journalists with the technical know-how of reporting the COVID-19 internally and internationally.
Therefore, I think a written apology from Juba Monitor to its readers on the frontline page would be prudent and fair. Thank you.
Daniel Lasuba is a Media and Communications Professional.
The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.