The World Health Organization (WHO) has denounced the “massive infodemic” of disinformation and misinformation swirling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as a driver of the crisis itself. In the current context, dis- and misinformation represent a serious challenge in addressing a viral epidemic or other public health crisis. Governments are right to take the threat of dis- and misinformation seriously as it does not only disrupt public health efforts, but it can also lead to the violation of other human rights.
From the moment they first reported on the emergence of COVID-19, journalists have worked around the clock to provide readers with comprehensive and up-to-date reporting on the COVID-19 global pandemic. Much of this coverage has focused on the reality of the crisis — what is happening, what can be expected, and new guidelines issued by governments. However, journalists have also at times failed to uphold the highest professional standards, reporting inaccurately or contributing to discriminatory narratives. Inaccurate, discriminatory or intentionally misleading reporting can hamper an effective public health response, create confusion and distrust among people.
Against this backdrop, UNESCO Beirut, in collaboration with Syria’s Ministry of Information and the Syrian National Commission for UNESCO, organized on 15 June 2020 a webinar for Syrian journalists to introduce the Arabic version of UNESCO’s handbook called “Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation: A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training”. The resource is aimed mainly at journalism educators and trainers, but is also of direct interest to practicing journalists and others who are interested in understanding and countering disinformation. The webinar also served as an opportunity to train journalism educators and practicing journalists from the Arab region on identifying, verifying, and responsible reporting of disinformation that they may encounter covering the current health crisis.
47 Syrian journalists from print, audio-visual and online media took part in the webinar.
The webinar started with a welcome note by Mr George Awad, UNESCO Beirut’s Programme Specialist for Communication and Information, who highlighted UNESCO’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and the Organization’s efforts to counter mis- and disinformation through a variety of tools and initiatives, including webinars and online trainings for journalists in the Arab region on positive and accurate coverage of a health crisis. Mr Awad introduced UNESCO’s handbook stating that it is a timely and useful resource for all those who practice or teach journalism in this Digital Age.
The training was then delivered by Ms Rouba El Helou, media lecturer and coordinator of the Gender, Communications and Global Mobility studies at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. Ms El Helou made a presentation about global and regional trends of coverage of health crises, and gave illustrative examples of fake news and disinformation practices related to Syria from local and international media.
The webinar examined the deployment of ‘fake news’ as a term to discredit journalism, and set out an alternative framework covering disinformation and misinformation based on UNESCO’s Handbook. Through a highly interactive Q&A session, the webinar provided participants with an opportunity to share experiences and lessons learnt.