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Tips for covering COVID-19 developments in North Africa and the Middle East

Khalid Bencherif is a freelance award-winning journalist from Morocco, specializing in covering environmental, political, and social issues in North Africa and the Middle East.

This special briefing is also available in Arabic, French and Portuguese.

 

RABAT, Morocco — The pandemic has plunged the world into a fast and endless cycle of emergency, so the public and journalists alike have had to chase the latest news and developments of the virus constantly. But, this prevented us from seeing the forest for the trees, as the pandemic had profound effects that hit various aspects of life, from health and education to the economic and political situation, whose true size has only recently been revealed.

In this context, in-depth journalism becomes more important in the Middle East and North Africa region to improve the Arab public's understanding of the complex and interrelated effects of the pandemic on local communities.

Important angles to cover

Covering COVID-19 in the Global SouthThe coronavirus pandemic has affected the world in various ways, sometimes invisible in various aspects of life, and these effects differ from one society to another, according to the seriousness of these effects for each region.

The Middle East and North Africa region may not have been affected as much in terms of the infections and deaths related to COVID-19 compared to Europe and the Americas, but the pandemic has had dire consequences in other aspects. Therefore, it’s important to focus on producing stories that address the Arab public’s priorities and the region’s problems, outlined below.

Coronavirus’s role in deepening inequality and poverty

The coronavirus crisis has further widened the gap between social classes. The rich have remained relatively far from the effects of the pandemic, and some of them increased their wealth, while the crisis inflicted the greatest harm on the poor, who lost their modest jobs. Many of them became unemployed. This, in turn, increased their suffering.

Oxfam states that the wealth of billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa region has increased by nearly $10 billion since the beginning of the pandemic, while 45 million people in the region have joined the poverty swamp as a result of the pandemic.

That is why it is important to cover inequality and class disparities caused by the pandemic. For example, journalists can produce in-depth stories about hunger, inequality in health and education, unemployment, falling wages, profits of the rich during the pandemic, poverty and deprivation, the Wealth Tax Act, .etc.

Financial corruption in the context of the pandemic

The emergency of the coronavirus pandemic forced various countries in the Arab region to mobilize huge budgets estimated at billions of dollars, through tax funds, borrowing, and Western grants to support their tattered health systems and relieve their poor citizens.

At a time when health workers in public hospitals were fighting the coronavirus pandemic and risking their lives, crisis dealers, lobbies, companies, and influential people were exploiting and profiting from the pandemic by looting funds allocated for health and social support. This created a crisis of bribery and corruption.

Indeed, corruption in the context of COVID-19 pushed António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to make an official statement, “The response to the virus is creating new opportunities to exploit weak oversight and inadequate transparency, diverting funds away from people in their hour of greatest need,” he said.

Therein lies the importance of investigative journalists’ work to cover various forms of corruption in the pandemic’s context, such as squandering public funds, purchasing fraudulent health materials and equipment, bribery, tampering with bills, inflating public expenditures, passing deals with collusion, monopoly practices, looting, and so on.

Manifestations of governments exploiting the pandemic to entrench authoritarianism

The suppression of freedom of speech in the Middle East is not new, but it has intensified during the pandemic, as governments in the Middle East and North Africa have exploited the pandemic to deepen repression, according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies report. This is done through abuse of power, silencing critics, activists and opponents, and weakening or closing civic institutions, undermining the same accountability systems needed to protect public health.

Many Arab countries witnessed arrests and widespread campaigns to consolidate authoritarianism under the pretext of the “state of health emergency” linked to the pandemic, and carried out arrests of journalists and trials of activists, while preventing peaceful protests and public gatherings.

Journalists should cover this political exploitation of the coronavirus crisis and how it is causing human rights abuses by carefully highlighting the authoritarian practices sometimes used by governments in the region, including arbitrary measures against the unvaccinated or those who reject compulsory vaccinations, trials of journalists and activists, and illegal laws (legislation that is passed quickly while the public is preoccupied with the pandemic).

Mental health problems

The World Health Organization has described the coronavirus pandemic as a "collective shock" for people around the world, which has led to a widespread deterioration of the mental health of citizens.

In the Arab region, mental health does not have a great awareness among people, not to mention the absence of a mental health care infrastructure. However, the restrictions of the pandemic have pushed the mental and psychological health problems in the region to serious degrees, which began to manifest themselves in recurring crimes and suicide incidents. Public mental health will likely continue to deteriorate in the coming years as economic pressures persist, especially in economically fragile countries.

Journalists have the responsibility of not only addressing multiple psychological problems, but of enlightening public opinion about the importance of removing mental health stigma. They can also inform the public about psychological support resources and available solutions to promote mental health.

Trending “fake news”

“Fake news” has flourished under the coronavirus pandemic on a large scale, especially on social media platforms, which may harm public health efforts and further deepen the problem in the Arab region.

In these times, journalists are required to refute fake news by “checking accuracy and not being exaggerated, as well as always referring to trusted sources, such as scientific journals, WHO resources, government health ministries’ offices and specialized experts, to obtain information and news related to COVID-19,” said Ashraf Amin, head of the Science and Health Department at Al-Ahram newspaper in Egypt.

It is not enough to refute fake news. Sometimes journalists are required to dig deeper into the reason for its popularity among the public. For example, many of those who reject the vaccine may have a good reason, such as being forced to get it, or not having sufficient information about the safety of the vaccine and the vaccination process from their government.

Tips on covering the pandemic

Being a journalist in the digital age and in the Arab region is not easy; you are always working under pressure and with low wages, while juggling daily demands to prepare news and follow routine stories. From morning to evening, you hardly find time to catch your breath, no less  produce in-depth stories about the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.

But trust me, you don't have to do this; you can be more productive and at the same time more comfortable and more profitable at work. How is that? The answer: working smart, focusing on quality.

These steps will help you get there:

Focus on quality journalism

High-quality journalism means journalistic stories that go beyond answering the usual questions of news – who, what, where and when– to focus on the question of how and why, providing a deep and reliable understanding of a particular issue.

The Arab region desperately needs this type of journalism to better inform public opinion about the developments of the coronavirus, including investigative journalism, narrative journalism, data journalism, solutions journalism, and visual journalism.

Learning to master one of these forms of quality journalism will be beneficial to improving the quality of your stories about the pandemic, and your career.

You can take inspiration from these examples of quality journalism, published in 2021:

- The ghost village

- Ain Sokhna.. Game of Thrones

- Syria: a market for corpses and a “profitable” brokering for the remains

- Christian real estate in Iraq...Organized appropriation by forgery and force of arms

- 5 graphic data to understand the magnitude of the Covid-19 mortality rate in Tunisia

- 6 ways parents can support their children during the COVID-19 pandemic

- Beirut explosion: the journey of toxic gases and their harmful effects on the environment

Plan your story well

A story’s quality stems mainly from three characteristics: the originality and importance of the idea, the reliability of the content, and the presentation’s aesthetic. So, before you get immersed in working on your topic, plan your story well on those three levels. This will save you a lot of time and effort. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is your idea well-defined? (The more specific the better.) Does your idea have value? Does the public need it?
  • Take your time to choose the appropriate angle for your story and use the topics we suggested earlier. "The best way to get a great idea is to have a lot," said Linus Pauling, a quantum chemist and two-time Nobel Laureate.
  • What are the sources that you will use in collecting the information? Are they reliable and specialized sources?
  • Avoid non-specialist sources and generalized researchers. Instead of interviewing medical providers who don't have an expertise in infectious diseases, try to find providers who do.
  • What type of journalism will you adopt (Feature, investigative report, an analytical or explanatory article...)?
  • What is the best medium for telling your story?
  • What visual elements will you use in your story (photos, interactive maps, videos, infographics...)? How will you use them to serve your story?
  • Can you use visuals to show statistical data and descriptive scenes?
  • What is your timetable for finishing the work? What is your plan to publish?

Try to repurpose your written story, for example, in the form of an infographic, an illustrated story, or a short video, and publish it on the most popular social platforms in your country.

Make your story interesting and attractive

It is not enough for your story to be authentic; it also needs to be attractive, interesting and relevant, to get the audience to read your story to the end. With this in mind, make sure to:

  • Write in a simple, understandable, and clear style. This will help you convey your message to readers more smoothly.
  • Localize your story, as your audience will no doubt prefer issues that concern them and their local situation, not those that take place somewhere else.
  • Focus on the human side. "Not all stories are suitable to work on as a feature story, but journalists should look for inspiring and moving stories, even if some of them are painful," as the award-winning Moroccan journalist, Magda Ait El Kataoui said.
  • Use data and statistics to make your story accurate. Consider creating related visuals so that your text isn’t packed with numbers.
  • Be sure to allocate space in your story to solutions, bright spots, and methods of adapting to the problems you are addressing. These are important angles that journalists often ignore in the dark pandemic era.

Additional resources and tools

Finally, here are some resources and tools to help journalists in North Africa and the Middle East cover the coronavirus pandemic and related issues:

Verification guide for journalists https://bit.ly/3H4p7uD


About this briefing
This story is part of a series of briefings written by science/health journalists who have offered best practices and insights on covering COVID-19. These briefings are being published as part of a Knight Center initiative sponsored by UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization. To read more about the briefings, click here. Additionally, access the briefings in multiple languages here:

Additionally, join us for the webinar "Variants, vaccines and medications: What journalists need to know to improve COVID-19 coverage" on Thursday, Jan. 27 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. U.S. Central Time (GMT -6).

The event, held in English, will feature simultaneous interpretation to Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Click here to register.

This webinar is being organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in partnership with UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.

 

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