When reliable information is gold: Demanding the truth during the Ebola epidemic

Alfred Sirleaf, citizen journalist and founder of The Daily Talk, gives comment on current events in Liberia – including the deadly Ebola outbreak – via a blackboard newspaper on a busy intersection in Monrovia, Liberia in July 2014. AP Photo/Jonathan Paye-Layleh

By: Jennifer Lentfer. This blog post was originally published by Oxfam America, and is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local leaders who are standing up for accountability, making demands of their government, and getting results in the fight against injustice. 

Two advocates in Liberia and Sierra Leone demonstrate that good governance must come from within.

Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, blogs…are you overwhelmed by the massive amount of information coming at you?

What if there was a way to continually sort through and make meaning of the vast amount of local news, national and international media, so that you could always get the best and most relevant content to you?

What if this highly-valued, curated information-sharing platform was in the middle of your town or city? Near one of the busiest intersections?

What if it was written not on a screen, but on a blackboard?

If you live in Monrovia, Liberia, it is. The Daily Talk is a convenient way that 5,000 people on average each day use to consume their news—more people than those that read Liberia’s most popular website.

During the Ebola crisis, the news is not just bits of information. The news has become a matter of life and death.

Alfred Jomo Sirleaf has been at the forefront of making sure people have this crucial information. Since he foundedThe Daily Talk in 2000, the 41-year-old father of three, inventor, and high school graduate has been on a personal mission to provide free news on local, national and international issues to his fellow Liberians.

On Tubman Boulevard, at one of Liberia’s capital’s busiest intersections, sits a white plywood shack. Every morning, with just four other staff and very little and inconsistent funding, Sirleaf checks in via text with “eyes and ears” correspondents, or over 200 volunteer citizen journalists across all 15 of Liberia’s counties. They scour over a dozen newspapers, radio reports, international media, and government websites. Sirleaf then decides which three to four stories and headlines will appear on the shack’s “front page,” and writes them up with weatherproof chalk in the small, dark newsroom behind the rotating blackboard.

Sirleaf writes in Liberian English, a pidgin or vernacular that is readily understandable to people, and tapes up photos he has printed out from the nearby Internet café to illustrate stories. He has also devised a system of symbols that enables people who don’t read well to know what today’s main story is about.

Liberians gather around The Daily Talk shack in Monrovia. On average each day, 5,000 people read The Daily Talk to consume their news – more people than those that read Liberia’s most popular website. AP Photo/Jonathan Paye-Layleh

People can see the bottle of dirty water hung by the shack and know that oil prices are in the news. If it’s a blue helmet, readers know it’s the UN peacekeepers. For stories about embezzlement (or “big stealing” in the colloquial), it’s a broom to signify “cleaning house.” A metal hubcap signifies a story about the “iron lady” of Liberian politics, Liberia’s Nobel Prize winning President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (no close relation to The Daily Talk founder) who passes by the shack everyday in transit from her home to her office at Liberia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Those who can read often do it aloud for their friends that can’t and these “props” or symbols enable people walking by to have conversations with those gathered at the shack, thereby breaking down barriers for people of all ages, classes, and education levels to engage in the issues of the day.

“Without paying a dime, all you need to do is go closer and somebody can help you understand what is happening,” Sirleaf explains.

“I love The Daily Talk because it is for the commoners,” Carlos Joseph, a law enforcement officer told the Voice of America in 2010. “Those who don’t have money to buy a newspaper, can read.”

Abakou Sammy, an electronics worker also said, “You know he [Sirleaf] break it down for us, you know, so we understand it better.”

The ability to reach people in ways most relevant to them became even more crucial when Ebola hit Liberia last year.

“I started in April. I was covering Ebola when it was still at the border, near Guinea,” says Sirleaf. “I was scoring the government on its health care facilities, response to the epidemic, communications to the public, lack of preventative systems, etc.

“Daily Talk is about keeping everyone in the system on their toes and aware of what is happening,” he says.

Sirleaf feels that it was misinformation that created turmoil in Liberia’s past, and allowed those with power to manipulate and control people. Before Ebola hit, New York Times journalist Lydia Polgreen wrote that Sirleaf was, “an information evangelist, fervent in his belief that a well-informed citizenry is the key to the rebirth of his homeland, ravaged by 14 years of civil war.”

Sirleaf’s work—before, during, and after Ebola—aims to fuel active citizenship so that people are able to turn to politics and debate, rather than armed conflict, in the face of adversity. This is because of his firsthand experience of the atrocities of war and oppressive dictators. In addition to losing family and friends in the war, the Taylor regime jailed and exiled Sirleaf, and tore down The Daily Talk shack twice.

Sirleaf claims that The Daily Talk’s coverage of the government’s response to Ebola moved them to take more active measures, constructing emergency treatment units around the country and supporting other preventative services.

“I think the scorecard of The Daily Talk prompted action [on Ebola] by the government as it was seen worldwide. We exposed government weaknesses,” he explains.

In the three major Ebola-affected countries, citizens that want access to up-to-date and accurate information from their government to hold government accountable are often met with unclear procedures, disorganized records, and uncooperative officials.

“There was a huge issue of downplaying the effect of the [Ebola] outbreak in Sierra Leone,” says Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, founder and executive director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives based in Freetown. “Transparency remains a major issue in ensuring proper service delivery the face of the Ebola epidemic.” Photo: Jennifer Lentfer / Oxfam America

“Transparency remains a major issue in ensuring proper service delivery the face of the Ebola epidemic,” says Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, human rights lawyer and founder and executive director of the Society for Democratic Initiatives in Freetown. “It would have helped to have an accountable health system before the outbreak, which would have mitigated against the deadly spread.”

Abdulai, who had worked on getting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on the books in Sierra Leone for over ten years before it passed in 2013, made FOIA requests about the management of initial Ebola response resources at the end last year – how much was received and how it has been used by the Sierra Leone government. In addition, Abdulai explains that, “There were a lot of concerns about payment to front line workers like junior doctors, burial teams, and contact tracers.”

“We received no information and the authorities violated the recently-passed law,” he says. “They claimed it was time to fight the Ebola and not transparency.”

Forward to mid-February when the Sierra Leone government’s audit service slammed the Ebola expenditure process as grossly violating procurement lawsand procedures.

“Look at where this has taken us now,” Abdulai laments. “This could have been avoided.”

Robtel Neajai Pailey PhD, a Liberian writer and researcher at the University of London, describes a “crisis of citizenship” that Ebola makes more acute.

“Relations between the Liberian state and its citizens were already volatile…indicative of the desperation of poor people who have seen the state fail them repeatedly,” he writes.

Sirleaf also states that, “We have seen the frustrations start to boil over…For much of Liberia’s history people have been able to avoid their responsibilities and get ahead by less than credible means…Liberia has long had a problem with destructive rumors.”

Both champions of free expression and information, Sirleaf and Abdulai’s existing, day-to-day work to build accountability in their countries intensified to fight against misinformation during the Ebola epidemic.

“Stories undermined the efforts at taking decisive actions in Sierra Leone. When Ebola surfaced in the eastern part of the country, it was rumored that the government wanted to reduce the population there because that part of the country is the opposition stronghold,” explains Abdulai. “Then there was a huge issue of downplaying the effect of the outbreak. While these debates were ongoing, the death rate spread.”

In Liberia, Sirleaf said that, “Things were perilous when West Point was quarantined, [though] we have not seen the killing of public health educators, as happened in Guinea.”

At the point at which rumors are rife and a kind of chaos ensues, both men agreed that this is when people’s willingness to trust in their government is crucial.

“People wanted to know what was happening – how serious the outbreak was, the ‘real’ fatality and infection rates, and how fast it was traveling in Sierra Leone,” says Abdulai.

Sirleaf explains that in Liberia, “The readers [of The Daily Talk] wanted to know about the symptoms of Ebola. They wanted to know the mechanisms to prevent Ebola, the source of the virus, and if it was created by humans.”

Daily Talk founder, Alfred Sirleaf decides which three to four stories and headlines will appear on the shack’s “front page,” and writes them up with weatherproof chalk in the small, dark newsroom behind the rotating blackboard. Photo: Morgana Wingard / Accountability Lab

Luckily Sirleaf had expanded the scope of The Daily Talk billboard’s content. In 2013 they began to include a section with step-by-step instructions on how to navigate government services, such as how to register a business, obtain a birth certificate, get a new passport, or submit a Freedom of Information request. This section could directly serve people’s information needs about Ebola.

“We expect the change to be that citizens better understand how to engage with government constructively and to better understand where processes may be going wrong,” said Blair Glencorse, founder and director of Accountability Lab, which has also supported The Daily Talk expand to a second location in Monrovia. “From the government perspective, we expect this to help the relevant ministries disseminate the right kind of information in understandable ways to the population.”

In recent months, the civic education section of The Daily Talk has covered the location of hospitals and Ebola treatment units in Monrovia, best practices on sanitation and hygiene, and how to report suspected Ebola cases.

And what is the symbol Sirleaf uses for the deadly disease? How does he portray Ebola to help people make sense of it?

“Mirroring the pictures of greatly enlarged viruses one has seen in school textbooks, to portray the destructive nature of the virus…

“A devil with a pitchfork.”

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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