It seemed like a good story. The World Health Organisation had issued an extraordinary statement rebuking the Tanzanian government for its lack of transparency over the Ebola test results of a young doctor who died last month in Dar es Salaam.
The government had ignored repeated WHO requests to hand over samples from patients suspected of possible infection – there were potentially three – for external validation, as recommended by the agency’s guidelines.
It was beginning to look like a cover-up – or at least something worth exploring. But journalist after journalist we approached to write the story demurred.
“This is an important story, but I think it's simply too risky for me to write it,” emailed one.
“Journalists are being careful since they don’t know who’s who. A lot of snitches in the newsroom,” WhatsApp’d another.
“Before I agree, my first born’s name is... (as in, look after them should anything happen to me),” said a third.
They have every reason to be cautious. Since 2016, under President John Magufuli, Tanzania has fallen 47 places in the press freedom rankings drawn up by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), to 118th out of 180.
“No other country has experienced such a drastic decline,” the head of RSF’s Africa desk, Arnauld Froger, told me.
Investigative journalist Erick Kabendera is the latest to have been detained for his reporting. His arrest on 29 July “underlines the rising repression of journalists and perceived government critics in Tanzania, where people have been killed, physically assaulted, threatened, harassed or abducted for expressing their views,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
On Ebola, the government had made its position clear – there have been no Ebola cases in Tanzania. It then invited the WHO’s country representative, Tigest Ketsela Mengestu, to the foreign ministry last month to repeatedly state that her agency had never claimed there was. In the circulated video clip, deputy foreign minister, Damian Ndumbalo, seems to be waiting for her to issue just that soundbite.
Tanzania reportedly feels it is facing an international “conspiracy” after its clash with the WHO. Travel advisories issued by the US and British governments this month, warning of a “probable” Ebola death, is further unwelcome news for a government keen to protect its vital tourism industry.
Not a blame game
Tanzania is in a difficult region, with dynamic, free-flowing populations, so disease surveillance will always be a challenge.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ebola has gone unchecked for more than a year, is just across Lake Tanganyika to the west. Uganda, which so far has twice tackled cross-border infections from this DRC epidemic, is to the north, and it is from there that the doctor who fell sick and died in Dar es Salaam had recently returned.
It’s not about blaming or shaming, it’s about how those at risk can be best helped.
Ebola preparedness, and how an outbreak is handled by governments and the international community, is really the larger point – and has been a deliberate theme of TNH’s coverage. It’s not about blaming or shaming, it’s about how those at risk can be best helped.
The flow of information is a critical part of responding to any emergency, generating awareness about threats, providing information on how to cope and, ideally, accountability. Credibility, rather than sweeping stuff under the carpet, is key.
If the Tanzanian government’s lack of transparency over a potential Ebola case was about preventing public fear (rather than self-image), then it should have been a little braver.
There is a whole field of risk communication to draw on, spelling out how real-time information can be shared between experts and citizens. But there is little evidence that that sort of preparedness is underway in Tanzania. Posters have been put up outside hospitals and there are some media adverts, but there’s nothing close to a full-on awareness campaign, one journalist said.
There are legitimate concerns over how to report emergencies. During a crisis, people absorb, process, and act on information differently, according to the Centres for Disease Control – polite-speak for freaking out. The key is that messages should be simple, credible, and consistent.
Sensationalist reporting obviously upends that strategy. Let’s not forget the public panic whipped up by the media in the United States in 2014 when two health workers returned to the country after working on the Ebola response in Liberia (should a pizza delivery be allowed, was one such story).
There is an almost natural tension between the commercial media, looking for stories that sell, and governments trying to shape that message.
The authorities often, surprisingly, have the public on their side. An Afrobarometer survey of 34 countries released this year found a majority of citizens were not opposed to government restrictions on the media during emergencies.
There is also a lesson to ponder from across the border in Congo, where the top-down messaging of the Ebola response has failed to engage with the communities it is meant to be influencing. As a result, a politicised social media, questioning the Ebola effort, initially at least, undermined the campaign.
Social media can pose challenges, with health seemingly a particularly ripe area for conspiracy theories, from the anti-vaxxers to anti-immigrant fear-mongering. But Nigeria’s Ebola outbreak in 2014 was an example of how the internet can work to fight disinformation.
Private individuals, like dentist Lawal Bakare, who created the Twitter campaign @EbolaAlert, set out to deliver facts and generate discussion about the virus. “We are spreading on Twitter much faster than the Ebola virus,” Bakare liked to say.
Clamping down on the media, as Tanzania has done, can drive people to the fake news it is in nobody’s interests to see proliferate, undermining the public’s trust when you need it most.
“The more you assault press freedom, the less quality journalism you will get,” said Froger of RSF. “The only way to strengthen quality journalism is to provide a safe, professional space.”