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Covering Ebola: going further than the death toll

One of the biggest African stories of the last few years has been the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The first case was reported in March 2014 and it rapidly became the deadliest occurrence of the disease since its discovery in 1976. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and respective governments have reported a total of 28.657 suspected cases and 11.325 deaths in six countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the USA and Mali. In January 2016, the WHO declared the last of the countries affected, Liberia, to be Ebola-free. During the Ebola crisis, Hamadou Tidiane Sy, the founder and editor-in-chief of online publication Ouestaf News in Senegal, brought together nine leading newspapers and sixteen journalists from eight West African countries to report on the dysfunctional health systems of the region. In three months they published seventy stories. Elles van Gelder met him for an interview.

Hamadou Tidiane Sy, how did the reporting project on Ebola start?

It started with a Facebook post I wrote during the height of the Ebola crisis. I was concerned by the media coverage, which mainly focused on the death count without dealing with the root causes of this disaster and its impact on the affected communities. In my post I asked why African citizens had to rely on hospitals that didn’t have the proper infrastructure or resources, while our leaders and our small upper class, went abroad to be cured. My post caused a lot of debate and a friend challenged me. He said: ‘You are a journalist and you should answer these questions.’

I connected with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (Osiwa), and was able to get funding to start a collaborative project in West Africa. I involved several media outlets: Politico in Sierra Leone, Le Progrès in Benin, The Daily Graphic in Ghana, La République in Guinea, Front Page Africa in Liberia, Les Echos in Mali, Daily Trust in Nigeria and Enquête in Senegal.

What did you exactly focus on?

We mainly looked at health policies and health systems in West Africa to answer the question of why our countries could not deal with Ebola. We examined different aspects of the health systems: the shortage of doctors in Nigeria, the cost of medical evacuations in Guinea and corruption in getting contracts in the health sector in Senegal. Our aim was to inform decision-makers and the public on the need to find lasting solutions to the health crisis.

What were the main challenges of this project?

The big editorial challenge was for all media involved to follow the same guidelines. We had nine media outlets each with their own way of doing things and their own policies, but for this project to work, we needed to create one virtual newsroom. We had an editor looking at the stories from the Francophone countries and an editor looking at the stories from the English-speaking countries. After they had done their editing, I would look at the editorial quality to make sure that these stories complied with the standards of my newsroom at Ouestaf News. Our standards are high: even if you write a brief news story of one hundred words, it should still have all the qualities of a 2,000-word story with regards to accuracy, ethics, sourcing and independence.

What are your main journalistic guidelines?
1. Independence: We were not there to attack or to promote government. In Senegal, when we did a couple of stories on corruption, we had to try and talk to government. Most times they wouldn’t say a straight ‘no’ to your face, they would keep saying ‘come back tomorrow’. And that is what we did. We kept on going back and giving them the option to talk until the very last minute, until the deadline.

2. Ethics and multiple sources: We don’t compromise when it comes to obtaining relevant sources. For instance, we killed a story because a journalist went to a hospital and wrote down claims by one person, who was also anonymous. We couldn’t run that. We needed multiple sources to make it credible. These are all straightforward journalistic principles but I often see stories in which it seems journalists didn’t have the time or will to properly check and look for multiple sources.

3. The right to respond: Also, we needed to give people the option of responding. When reporting from a hospital, you can’t just say: ‘this patient says this or this nurse claims that.’ You have to go to the hospital manager or supervisor and give them a chance to answer.

4. Respect your sources: We also wanted to respect the patients and work in an ethical way. We didn’t want to show their misery. There was a lot of negative stigma towards Ebola patients. We really focused on the health system and the policies.

How did you get most of your information?

We don’t have access to information laws in many parts of West Africa. In Senegal for instance, the press is ‘free’ but I cannot take my government to court and tell it that it has to give certain information to me because it is in the public interest. Governments in most of our countries are reluctant to give information, especially when it involves them. But where it was possible, we went to talk to government officials. And even if they didn’t want to talk, there was always information to work with.

Firstly, as a starting point, we went to the hospitals and health facilities, just to observe. And we looked at budgets: how much was the government putting into the health sector and what were we seeing in return? We looked at civil society reports, what the government had disclosed about what it was spending and what that was on. It was a lot of digging and archival research and looking for one little sentence in newspaper articles of something that was relevant to us.

What were your most successful stories?
In a couple of countries, we asked journalists to research how much money was being spent sending civil servants, government officials and heads of state abroad for medical treatment. This was extremely difficult but we got some numbers. We went to embassies to look at visa applications and got information from doctors. We multiplied the sources as much as we could and we tried to connect the dots.

We did a story on corruption in the health system in Senegal, how contracts were being signed without proper public bids, how people were giving contracts directly to friends. The starting point was a report that was already published by the agency that regulates public bids in Senegal. They rejected one bid and this was reported by the local media. We wanted to know how many bids were rejected and how many were rewarded in the whole sector. Who were the players? Which companies were involved and which government institutions? We went to talk to people that wanted to tender but were shut out. It was a story with a lot of numbers and cases. The regulatory body releases a lot of information. When they make a decision they have to make it public, and if you go onto their website you will find their reports. There is a lot, you just have to take your time to go through it. The health ministry refused to respond to our questions. After we published they asked us why we didn’t talk to them. We had proof that we did try.

Why was it important to collaborate with other countries in the region?
1. Regional impact: This was a crisis hitting our whole region and there were a lot of similarities in why the response to Ebola was slow and insufficient. We also wanted to draw regional conclusions. We looked for example at all the national health budgets and compared this with the WHO standards.

2. Similar problems: If we found a story in one country, we would check if this was also something that was happening in another country. We discovered a remark by the professional body of doctors in Guinea that more than 80 percent of private clinics were not formally recognised because they operated below standards. We looked at Benin and found this was also a problem there.

3. Sharing information and stories: The idea behind the collaboration was also that we could use each other’s stories. I have stories from Ghana that were published in Nigeria, from Senegal in Mali, from Guinea in Sierra Leone and so on.

What was your main conclusion and the impact?
It was a combination or bureaucracy, embezzlement of funds, a lack of funds, the misuse of funds, poor management, poor policies and negligence that made Ebola strike really hard in our region. We have a regional organisation called ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, which has a health arm, and we managed to get them to admit that they were slow in reacting to the Ebola crisis. We made people aware that Ebola was an issue but that the real problem was the health system, how it was managed, and that we had to work on that. I have seen more stories questioning the health system after our project.

What is your advice for investigative journalists?
The most difficult part is to connect the dots. Most of the data and information we want is out there but in separate places. You have to dig and go through archives, put things together and make sense of it. It requires patience, hard work and time.

The online publication

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Ouestaf News was launched in 2006. At the time, and this is still the case, there was a gap to be filled with high quality and independent media outlets. People mostly had the choice between state run media or ‘private’ media, mostly controlled by or at least heavily depending on politicians or business tycoons to exist. We decided to fill that gap. Ten years later we can still claim to have kept our independence. So when I created Ouestaf News, it was with the hope to address the obstacles facing journalism in Africa. I saw the need for investigative journalism in Africa - by and for Africans - that was independent. Journalism that was respectful of ethical guidelines and that could bring added value to the citizens. That’s why I launched a region-wide online news outlet in which a corps of investigative journalists report on the stories they care about without being subject to outside pressure.