In Focus

Viruses infecting private media during COVID-19 The pandemic can create a rebirth for journalism

Lasantha De Silva

COVID-19 pandemic has paved the way for a revival of journalism. The media must display why reliable news is crucial for people, society and democracy. The need of the hour is for media that reflects the truth to citizens. Ulrik Haagerup of the Institute of Constructive Journalism stated that “The news media has the chance to show the world — present and former customers and ourselves — why curated news and responsible journalism cannot be replaced by social media, where views and feelings are blended with facts and rumours, then spread around the world like a digital virus”.

Media Director of the Ministry of Defense Ms. Shanika Sriyanananda recently made a request from the media on behalf of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense. The letter, dated 27 April 2020 said the Ministry of Defense urged media institutes to inform journalists to respect the rights of COVID-19 patients when broadcasting. The letter further highlighted that people might hesitate to get tested by health authorities as a result due to their rights not being protected. However, even after that letter, the electronic media did not stop their unethical reporting practices entirely. They merely blurred images while further continuing the tradition of stigmatization of COVID-19.

When we inquired about the letter, the Media Director of the Ministry of Defense stated that they had done so based on the evidence of an investigation.  Ms. Sriyananda said that people had commended the directive sent to media. One citizen pointed out that not only patients but people tested for COVID-19 were stigmatized by television channels.

A second letter titled ‘Media Responsibilities befoe COVID-19 Pandemic’ was sent to all the owners and chiefs of print and electronic media by a collective of six media organizations who urged media institutes to follow the code of journalistic ethics when covering the pandemic. The six organizations are the Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Trade Union Federation of Media Workers, Tamil Media Collective, Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association and Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum. They sent the letter on 23 March 2020 after observing the problem at the beginning of the epidemic in Sri Lanka. The letter highlighted the need for being accountable for verifying the news disseminated through the websites of media institutes and other electronic media. Further, the need for making journalists aware of their social responsibility in terms of reporting the incidents was emphasized.

Prior to this, Director-General of Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe also urged the media to refrain from reporting anything that could cause hatred in the minds of readers. Emphasizing that disrespect to the privacy of the COVID-19 and stressing that safeguarding privacy is a basic right, the Dr. Jasinghe issued eight recommendations to media to be used when reporting the pandemic.

Following are the eight recommendations of the Director-General of Health Services.

  • Always use accurate and verified sources when reporting about COVID-19
  • Do not mention the race and religion when reporting about the deaths and the persons who are quarantining
  • Avoid introducing COVID-19 patients as spreaders of coronavirus
  • Report the risk based on scientific and technical facts. Avoid publicizing the personal opinions of various individuals
  • Refrain from showing the images of COVID-19 patients and the persons under quarantine without their permission
  • When showing the sensitive footage of funerals of the COVID-19 deaths, blur the images so that the persons cannot be identified
  • Refrain from causing hatred among people when reporting
  • Do not report COVID-19 as stress and desperation are caused in the public mind. Instead, report positively so as hope and cooperation is built up among people

By now, the responsibility of professional and citizen journalists before COVID-19 and the accountability of the government is a vital theme for discussion both locally and internationally. The global media movement continuously emphasizes the basic requirements for the free flow of accurate information, access to information and maintaining a proper mechanism for dissemination.

Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression – David Kaye, The Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – Harlem Désir and Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – Edison Lanza published a pamphlet titled ‘Covid-19: The Role of information during a global Pandemic.’ The Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka translated the pamphlet into local languages in the hope that it will further enrich the dialogue for ethical media usage in the face of the crisis. The pamphlet is available here:

The pamphlet highlights, “Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through any media, applies to everyone, everywhere, and may only be subject to narrow restrictions”.

The publication also urges governments to provide truthful information about the nature of the threat posed by COVID-19 to protect the work of journalists, address disinformation in the first instance by delivering reliable information and to rigorously protect the individual’s right to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms.

Spread of disinformation regarding the pandemic can cause health problems and social calamity because of the high public interest around the issue. The Free Media Movement, together with the International Federation of Journalists, worked on the role of the media in the times of disasters, focusing on the sensitivity of the issue.

Editor-in-Chief of Ravaya alternative newspaper, veteran journalist Victor Ivan once said that the most decayed field in the Sri Lankan society is media. He stressed that all media institutes needed to understand that they could not relieve themselves from social responsibilities when covering press freedom. Although freedom of expression is desirable, press freedom cannot be interpreted as excessive freedom for blatantly violating the privacy of citizens without fair reason. The reason for some media to arrogantly ignore the basic ethics and guidelines in terms of reporting about Coronavirus can be their close links with political agendas.

Ethics Eye, a programme of Verite Research exposes destructive media behavior. Chief of Media Research of VR, Deepanjalie Abewardane said she had observed many instances of irresponsible reporting. “Some television channels reported about COVID-19 persons implying that they are deliberately spreading the disease,” she said.

For instance, reporting on the second COVID-19 death in Sri Lanka implied that the deceased was deliberately spread the virus. The channels showed details of the places he visited, including a wedding ceremony he attended. Deepanjalie Abewardane pointed out that media was biased in their hypotheses whereas health authorities had not expressed such a specific conclusion. Patients and their families were also shown as victims of a crime due to media activities that invaded the privacy of the individuals.  Abewardane argued that the dangerous outcome of this phenomenon could be people hiding from medical care in fear of being a victim of media. Even the Ministry of Defense had to address the media and highlight the matter to them due to this crisis. Ethics Eye has identified that the media would also unnecessarily mention the ethnicity of COVID-19 patients, further creating suspicion among communities.

Sahan Basnayake, a journalist from Anuradhapura in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, focused attention to another dimension. He says people tend to believe exaggerations because media publish news that is not verified by health authorities. Based on his experience in Anuradhapura, he said that people in remote areas tend to believe unrealistic information.

The Centre for Media and Education mentioned in a communiqué that violating the privacy of people who were sent into quarantine was not a good media practice. The statement further mentioned that there was a social denial of camera crews that videoed the COVID-19 patients and family members of Navy personnel who were sent to quarantine. The Centre appeals to journalists to follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Health for reporting on the pandemic.

It is not easy to report during a pandemic, and many good journalists risk their lives for the service of providing the people with accurate, updated and comprehensive information. The communiqué of the Centre for Media and Education further said that unfortunately, some media resort to tabloid journalism of sensationalizing through stigmatization, racism and other malpractices without following the guidelines.

Ulrik Haagerup of the Institute of Constructive Journalism stated, “The news media has the chance to show the world why responsible journalism is essential ”. He argues that the COVID-19 pandemic can pave the way for the rebirth of journalism. Such a rebirth is productive only if it happens in an environment where the basic ethics of journalism are respected. This perspective is highly relevant to the media landscape of Sri Lanka. Haagerup further pointed out why curated news and responsible journalism cannot be replaced by social media, where views and feelings are blended with facts and rumours, then spread around the world like a digital virus. He said that the time is up now for constructive journalism.

Journalism should show the people, society and the democracy why reliable information is crucial at this juncture. The need of the time is media activism that provides an opportunity for everyone to experience the best reflection of truth. If the journalists do not understand that requirement, media can only be a digital virus that spread misinformation based on distorted facts, feelings, opinions, narrow views and gossip and they can further the health problems, social calamity and public unrest. It is not an answer to the question of why journalism is essential for the viewers, listeners, readers, society and democracy, as Ulrik Haagerup stated.

This article was originally published on

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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