This article is part of our Ethics in Practice series with Internews Europe
By Karim Bernard Dende
With 11,395 registered cases and 308 deaths (as of November, 7,2020), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the Central African country most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The central and provincial governments have enforced social distance measures, travel restrictions and lockdowns but Covid-19 continues to spread, most notably in the conflict-torn Eastern provinces. Considering that over 90% of households rely on small informal business, providing day-to-day revenues, lockdown has devastating consequences for the people of this poverty-stricken region.
The level of trust of the citizens towards and public institutions is extremely low. As in the first months of the 2018 Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri, this has led to a denial of the existence of the disease, and to the spreading of a considerable number of rumours and fake news.
Internews and provincial networks of community radio have a rumour-tracking bulletin, and this showed rumours – suggesting the media never showed someone affected by the coronavirus, because there was a belief it did not exist in DRC or that traditional leaders ensured protection of the city of Mbuji Mayi through witchcraft – started to spread quickly when the Congolese government announced the first deaths of Covid-19 in March 2020. In addition, when people in popular neighbourhoods of Kinshasa heard that chloroquinine could be used as treatment (it had been approved by the Congolese government at the time, but not by health authorities worldwide), some people made a link with the Kongo Bololo, a traditional quinine-based drug. People flocked to the stalls of women selling traditional medicines and at least three people died from overdose.
The question of how to identify and dispel rumours and misinformation in rural communities in a country as large as Western Europe, but with a very poor infrastructure, is not a simple one. But it’s something Congolese community radio journalists are constantly tackling in effective ways. Adapting some of data collection tools used in the Ebola outbreak, Internews has been supporting community radio journalists, helping them to track rumours and respond to them with verified facts.
Collecting rumours and identifying information gaps
In the DRC, community radio stations tend to be the first source of information in rural and urban areas.
Community radio journalists identified local WhatsApp groups as the origin of COVID-19 rumours and saw how youth and community leaders then spread rumours by word-of-mouth. Internews has been working with CongoCheck, a factchecking initiative set-up by young journalists in conflict-torn North Kivu, to help collect rumours circulating on social media and debunk them with facts.
Produce and disseminate the correct information to urban and rural communities
To ensure that accurate and trusted information is shared with communities, Internews has a dedicated team of people who identify the most common rumours each week and work with specialists from the Ministry of Health (MoH) to produce easy-to-use explanations that are published in a twice-weekly newsletter shared with community radio journalists and other main in the health and humanitarian sectors (Congolese Red Cross, UNICEF and other organizations engaged with the national coordination body) : Oyo Ezo Lobama (“What is said” in Lingala, the main national language spoken in the West of the DRC) and Iliyo Semeka (“What was said” in Swahili, the main national language spoken in Eastern DRC). Internews trainers also mentored 105 journalists and editors in 66 community radio stations throughout the country to support the production of stories and other content debunking local rumours. Internews supports the production and broadcasting of radio magazines, such as Instants COVID or Tushinde Corona (meaning ‘let’s overcome the coronavirus. in Swahili) in national languages (Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo) to share responses to rumours and questions from the communities. In addition, Internews provided technical assistance on #RDCEnsembleContreCOVID media and social media campaigns and the MoH dedicated information platform www.stopcoronavirus.cd to raise awareness on COVID-19 preventive measures, both initiatives led by partner women media professionals’ organisations. This provides more opportunities to disseminate rumour debunking information in social media, community and main stream media outlets.
And so, there is hope for DRC. Rumour and misinformation are rife, but Internews is working with community leaders and local media to dispel dangerous rumours and save lives. Accurate, timely information is the best defence against this info-demic.
Main photo shows Emmanuela Zandi, journalist for Instant Covid, and Eloi Kingwenze (Jeunes vivant avec Handicap, NGO Young people living with Disabilities) in Internews studio in Kinshasa (photo: Bruce Leposo, Internews)
Karim Benard Dende is an expert in media and communications, civil society, governance and accountability, and election observation. He has notably managed media and governance projects in Ivory Coast, Central African and Democratic Republic of Congo, and provided expertise in media and governance for numerous projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. His work focuses on the building of local capacities, effective staff oversight, and regular communication about information-related governance issues. He is Internews Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2015.