In crisis: Jordan battles COVID-19 and misinformation

By Bayan Tal

The Royal Jordanian aircraft, led by female pilot Captain Carol Rabadi, touched down at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport in the early hours of Saturday, 1 February 2020, after a direct 11-and-half-hour flight from Wuhan with 71 Jordanian and other Arab nationals who were evacuated from the Chinese city where the COVID-19 virus was reported to have originated.

The move marked Jordan’s first step in tackling an impending crisis that has so far claimed the lives of 7 people and infected 401. Jordan’s first case was announced on 2 March. Soon after, the government announced extreme measures to fight the pandemic: a strict lockdown and the invocation of the Defense Law, bringing most of the country to a standstill.

However, like in much of the world, the lockdown did not stop the flow of misinformation. In fact, it flourished. A report by the Jordanian media credibility monitor Akeed, said the 67 false stories disseminated throughout the month of March were more than double those recorded in previous months. Social media platforms, like WhatsApp and Facebook, were the main channels of misinformation sharing. Fact-checkers found the majority of these stories came from local social media platforms. They covered health issues and included claims such as: the virus causes infertility in men, drinking warm water every 15 minutes stops the virus, and hand dryers are effective in preventing infection.

However, like in much of the world, the lockdown did not stop the flow of misinformation. In fact, it flourished.

In order to take the reins on the information race, the government, took steps to keep the public informed through daily press briefings and a dedicated page on the Ministry of Health’s website with updates about the pandemic. This seems to have set the tone for press coverage, particularly with cabinet members and health professionals available for interviews at all times. The government’s transparency, efficiency, and accountability struck a note with the public who, according to successive surveys, had lost faith in previous governments as well as parliament and the media.

Today, the media is riding a wave of newfound confidence, as people turn to their national broadcasters for news of the crisis. However, while the coverage has provided crucial information about the virus and protection measures, its performance has fallen short in other important areas. The experts interviewed, for example, have predominantly been men, and hardly mentioned the active role of women on the frontlines in the health, education, and security sectors, and the police.

Much of the coverage focused on the government’s actions, rather than on how the crisis was affecting people, especially vulnerable groups; women and children who are in quarantine with their abusers, people with disabilities, Jordan’s sizeable refugee populations, daily wage workers including Jordanian and migrant (largely from South and Southeast Asia), and others.

Akeed also reported ethical lapses by some journalists. The increased public attention appears to have turned TV presenters into populists, with the work of some verging on hate speech. One writer, eager to advise families on what to do during the quarantine, perpetuated existing gender stereotypes. She urged fathers to share their wisdom with sons to help fix things around the house; mothers were asked to teach their daughters cooking, sewing, and cleaning.

The increased public attention appears to have turned TV presenters into populists, with the work of some verging on hate speech.

The government said it will rigorously prosecute misinformation reporting, but there are fears that authorities could use these new restrictions to curb press and individual freedoms, especially following the arrest on 9 April of the owner and news director of the private channel Roya TV. There was no comment from the government, but when contacted, an official told this writer that the channel had broadcast material that encouraged people to defy the lockdown and threatened the safety of others. The official was referring to a video report in which angry Jordanians said their families were hungry. One man wondered if he would eventually have to resort to theft and selling drugs to support his family. The lawyer of the two media executives, who were later released on bail, was quoted by local media as saying that the state security court charged the two with violating the Anti-Terrorism Law.

In the dual battle against COVID-19 and misinformation, the prevailing hope is that the government’s measures will succeed in defeating both. If Jordan is to bounce back from this crisis economically and socially, it cannot give up press freedoms and civil liberties. Instead, it can boost professionalism, trust, and literacy in the media and build up the public’s immunity to misinformation.