Covering the Ebola story: Journalism a risky job in West Africa

10700097_10152599576391773_8416625079733622265_oBy Sarah Bomkapre Kamara

American freelance journalist Ashoka Mukpo, this month became the first journalist to have been diagnosed with Ebola.

(Picture: Reuter’s video Journalist in Sierra Leone Idriss kpange ready to visit an isolation center. Credit: Idriss Kpange)

A member of the NBC News team, Mr. Mukpo will enjoy the same facility every American who contracted the virus enjoys – he will be flown to his country for proper treatment which will eventually lead to his recovery. A good thing to know but, his contracting the deadly Ebola virus sent chills down my spine and left me thinking about the many local and western journalists in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone who come in contact daily with people to tell their stories. Sometimes these journalists have to go into communities that have been hit by the virus and are quarantined. They can dress up well with protective clothes to go into these high risk areas but what about their equipments? Their cameras, audio recorders and more? What happens to them if they contract this deadly virus like everyone who has? How are these journalists taking care of themselves whilst on duty?

10593212_10202415956672393_594845582837309477_n(Picture: Canadian journalist Stephen Douglas took this selfie after observing a training  session for health workers on precautions in treating Ebola patients. Credit: Stephen Douglas)

In just two months it will be a year since the hemorrhagic fever Ebola virus was first diagnosed in Guinea, West Africa. Since then we have continually received news reports on how each community, society and country is doing. Some journalists especially local journalists on the ground were one of the first to report these stories. Stories of death, tragedy and even survival. Even though many of them didn’t quite know what Ebola was, didn’t have training on what they should do or not do, and had serious logistical problems (as always), many risked it anyway.

They went into Ebola hit communities, the firsts of which were not easily accessible areas most times without good roads, to get more information on the progress of the disease, visiting     isolation units and giving out educational information about the disease. Some of these journalist have lost their lives whilst on duty like some colleagues found dead along with other health workers last month in Guinea believed to have been killed by the people. What were they doing in this community? Working together with health workers to ensure the right stories are told that will eventually prevent more deaths from Ebola.

DSCF1060(Picture: DW correspondent Julius Kanubah interviews an ebola survivor in Liberia. Credit: Julius Kanubah)

Many at times during this crisis, we worry about the lives of the health and aid workers in this region. That is legitimate as they are the ones working day and night to care for the sick and suffering making them the highest risk groups, vulnerable to contracting Ebola. But like health and aid workers, news-makers and reporters too risk their lives daily. Going into rundown communities, visiting isolation centers and interviewing health workers, all in a bid to show the world the pictures and tell the stories that many people living out of these areas can only think about.

A journalist colleague for example interviewed a medical doctor in Sierra Leone just a few weeks before he tested positive for the virus whilst another visited an area in Liberia that has been quarantined and labelled a high risk area. Every single day journalists come in contact with people as their work requires that – making them also vulnerable to the disease and adding them to the list of one of the high risk jobs during this epidemic.

10379909_10203615630489296_8726040112274448766_o(Picture: BBC World Service Trust reporter Mariama Khai Fornah interviewing Dr. Mohamed Alex Vandy, District Medical Officer in Kenema, one of the worst hit regions in Sierra Leone. Credit: Mariama Khai Fornah)

I salute the bravery of our journalists in these three worst hit countries and other countries in Africa. I also salute international journalists who leave their comfort zones in developed countries risking their lives to tell the stories in places where no one wants to go at the moment. For me just like the health and aid workers, our journalists deserve to be applauded. They are part of the unsung heroes in this fight to contain the Ebola epidemic and improve the lives of people in these communities and countries. They work under pressure, stress and unbelievable conditions.  Their job does not entail telling their own stories but others’ stories, sharing valuable information whilst serving as checks and balances in monitoring governments’ actions in this period. They are an important contingent in the war against this virus!

1487811_10152599571036773_3256806812046617419_o(Picture: Journalist Idriss Kpange getting dressed before an interview with isolated Ebola patients. Credit: Idriss Kpange)

Just like Mr. Mukpo, we do not wish that any more journalists contract Ebola in the line of duty, but we cannot rule out the fact that this might be any journalist. I do wish Mr. Mukpo is evacuated as soon as possible for treatment in the US but I am not forgetting the other journalists on the ground at the moment – especially the local journalists who might not have the luxury of been taken out for treatment in case they contract this dreadful disease.

I implore governments and other agencies to please ensure they are treated right like other jobs deemed high risk professions in Ebola hit countries. I do hope news organisations are taking great care in ensuring their workers are protected too. Practicing Journalism is risky at this time in West Africa but all I can say to our colleagues both local and international is take all precautions you can while carrying out your duties as journalists.  Stay safe!


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Sarah Bomkapre Kamara is a Media Researcher and Multi Media                Journalist living in Germany.  Her research interests include Journalism     Cultures, Human Rights Journalism, Media Ethics and more. She has worked for media in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Germany.

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