Disinformation has been growing since the outbreak of COVID-19 last December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Social media users – including world leaders such as Donald Trump – shared false information about the virus, intensifying an already dire “infodemic.”
In developing countries like Pakistan, people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and false information. According to one poll, only 3 percent of people in Pakistan had no misconceptions about the virus while one-third believed various conspiracy theories to be true.
This situation has added to the workload of journalists in Pakistan. They have been looking for online trainings, webinars, and workshops to learn new skills to verify available online information.
Asad Zia reports on health for a local newspaper in Pakistan’s northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He recently attended training with a non-governmental organization, Global Neighborhood for Media Innovation (GNMI), on combating fake news, propaganda, and disinformation related to COVID-19. Zia said the training helped him learn new tools and make new connections in the field.
“The training was very insightful, educative, and informative,” he said. “The instructor told us [things] about misinformation and disinformation that we did not know before. He also told us a few verification techniques and tools that I use to validate information.”
Zia has also reported on polio in Pakistan for local newspapers and TV channels of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan is one of the last two polio-endemic countries. The government halted vaccination operations in March amid increasing cases of COVID-19. It started again at the end of July when the number of coronavirus cases began to decrease. The pandemic also affected the reporting of polio-related news stories.
Najia Ashar, founder and president of GNMI, says COVID-19 greatly affected the polio vaccination drive in Pakistan.
“The government stopped the campaign, fearing transmission of the virus in children, caretakers, and polio workers. On the other end, the focus of media also shifted to coronavirus and related news, ignoring polio that was already there,” she said. “We worked with our trainers and mentors to highlight the importance of polio reporting and to equip journalists with knowledge and skills to debunk disinformation to report factually on COVID-19 and polio-related news stories.”
Pakistan just finished its third nationwide anti-polio campaign in early December, which aimed to vaccinate over 39 million children under the age of five. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces have the highest vaccination refusal rate in Pakistan. Many parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated believe that the vaccine would make their children sterile.
The government and non-government organizations alike have requested that the media play a larger role in making Pakistan polio free. However, journalists and media organizations have their own limitations. Zia says it is challenging for a journalist to report on polio other than the regular press briefings issued by public departments.
“We mostly publish official press releases about anti-polio campaigns or news covering attacks on polio workers. We cannot write a word on topics such as malpractices or corruption in vaccine delivery,” he told The Diplomat. “At times the health department declines our request for data, and sometimes media organizations decline the story.”
COVID-19 has also shrunk access to information in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and the former federally administrative tribal areas of Pakistan. Journalists interviewed for this article said that hospitals, health departments, and government spokesperson would not answer or declined their requests for information. It has made reporting on pandemic difficult for most of them.
Bushra Qamar has been working in journalism for the past 15 years. She says it was extremely difficult to get information from hospitals and health departments during the pandemic.
The journalists working in these regions need trainings on safety and protection, too. They work under extreme pressure from militant groups, security agencies, district administrations, and tribal leaders. In many instances, security agencies or militant organizations required them to get clearance before releasing new reports or getting any training.
Another challenge that Qamar faced was lack of training on how to go into the field as a reporter in such situations. She had attended several trainings on health reporting, but none of those trainings taught her how to keep herself safe from diseases during outbreaks.
“The uncertainly level was so high in the start. No one knew how deadly the new virus was and how it transmits and how one can report news from the field while keeping themselves safe,” she said. “Very few of us dared to go into the field for reporting. Some journalists also tested positive for COVID-19 later.”
It was also her first time to attend online training sessions. Qamar participated in an online workshop covering the sources journalists can use to get information about the pandemic. The Karachi-based Center for Excellence in Journalism organized this workshop online.
There are not many institutions in Pakistan that work on building capacity among journalists and media practitioners. The Digital Rights Foundation and Media Matters for Democracy are two other non-profit organizations working on media, the internet, and freedom of speech. They arrange regular sessions for journalists from different demographics in Pakistan.
Daniyal Shams, a subeditor at a private TV channel in Peshawar, said journalists need new tools to fact-check information they take from online sources. He verifies information from at least two sources before using it in his reports. As for on-the-job trainings, he said his TV channel does not arrange any trainings or workshops for journalists. Those who hear about any opportunity must apply for it themselves.
Sameera Latif, a journalist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said that after attending a training on disinformation, she could identify how she had been sharing misinformation through her social media accounts. She learned the use of reverse image search to verify images.
Still, the biggest challenge is to bring media attention to issues that directly affect the people. Ashar said that mainstream media prefers short-lived breaking news surrounding political issues over issues that directly affect people.
“We do not see much news on polio in newspapers or television channels. Even the awareness messages are carried only in the government’s advertisements. Media can, indeed, play a better role.”
She hopes such training sessions will inspire journalists to cover issues that they normally don’t cover in their stories.
Tehreem Azeem is a digital media journalist from Pakistan. She is currently working on a Ph.D. from the Communication University of China. She tweets @tehreemazeem