‘We’re in a period where distributing and publishing information is more important than monopolizing it’
Palestinian women journalists based in the West Bank have played leading roles in covering the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.
Some of these journalists emphasized to The Media Line the seriousness of their social responsibility in raising awareness and establishing a new culture of extreme hygiene, not only through their work, but also to their many followers on social media.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency on March 5, closing schools and universities for a month. Five days later, Ramallah Gov. Leila Ghannam issued an order closing all restaurants and cafes in her jurisdiction – which normally has a bustling leisure scene – in an effort to fend off further spread of coronavirus.
Shireen Abu Aqleh, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Palestinian territories and Israel, told The Media Line that covering coronavirus-related stories was a new experience, with many elements of uncertainty.
“We have been through military incursions and curfews by the Israeli occupation. On the ground, at least we used to know where the danger was coming from, but now we don’t know,” she said.
Abu Aqleh explained that any mistake could put her crew at risk, and possibly in quarantine. Part of the team now has to work from home, but the rest are obligated to respect the PA’s precautionary procedures to avoid close contact with others.
“Each one of us bears a huge responsibility,” she said.
“When people contact us, asking us as trustworthy sources to confirm news and information, this renders it a double responsibility, particularly amid the daily spread of rumors,” she elaborated. “Our responsibility as journalists isn’t just to disseminate news, but also to disprove rumors.”
Faten Elwan, the West Bank correspondent for the US-based Alhurra satellite television station, has more than 19,000 followers on Facebook. She told The Media Line that most of her work of late has focused on reassuring people so as to prevent panic over the rumors.
“Some people in positions of authority are leaking documents that should not be leaked. Reassuring people allows us to work on other tracks,” she said.
Elwan added that at first, covering the story had left her a bit perplexed, as it was her first time dealing with such a phenomenon.
“Usually, when I report in the field and decide to chase dangerous events such as violent clashes, I put myself at risk. But now, if I catch the virus, I could be an element aiding in its transmission. At one point I was meters away from the quarantined hotel in Bethlehem,” she said.
Most of the approximately 40 Palestinians who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 are in isolation at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, a town in the Palestinian Authority’s Bethlehem Governorate.
Elwan called COVID-19 a “social virus,” saying she had spent the past months reading about it, including how to avoid catching it.
“We as journalists must stay a minimum of 15 meters away from any place that might have the virus,” she said. “Additionally, I brought hygiene gel to the office and distributed protective instructions.”
She also has been posting Facebook content and live videos to increase awareness and provide information about preventive measures.
“I received a lot of responses,” she related. “Some of them were very positive. The Palestinian street was committed after the third day [following the declaration of the state of emergency], which was reflected in how most people were avoiding contact and [practicing good] hygiene all the time.”
Elwan said that as a Palestinian journalist, she uses social media platforms on her own time to serve her local audience and inform people about official announcements and instructions.
“I consider it part of my social responsibility,” she stated. “We’re in a period where distributing and publishing information is more important than monopolizing it.”
Reem al-Omari, FM manager at the Ramallah-based Watan Radio and presenter of the “Shid Hilak Ya Watan” talk show, told The Media Line that the whole situation was strange and new.
“I have been working for the past 15 years, and this is the first time Palestine has entered a state of emergency because of a disease,” she explained.
Omari pointed out that when schools were closed, it increased the burden on her as a mother.
“It created extra pressure to coordinate my time between work and family, especially since people require new information about the virus every day, in addition to coverage of other news,” she noted, adding that people working in the media have a responsibility to help create and spread a new culture of hygiene.
“Basically, the coronavirus topic dominates the beginning of every episode of my talk show,” she said. “One time, I talked about the importance of cleaning hands regularly, other times about rumors, panic and related topics.”
Merna al-Atrash, editor in chief at Baladna Radio in Bethlehem, told The Media Line that the pressure of work had increased to a point where lately, she barely saw her husband, who is also a journalist.
“We have a huge responsibility, especially since our government has a very minimum of financial resources,” she explained. “Therefore, we must support this strategy of preventing the transmission of the virus rather than dealing with it directly, as we would be unable to do so.”
Atrash stressed the importance of supporting the PA’s official messages and instructions, for example, that people should not gather.
“We must learn from China, which has become familiar with everything related to this virus. We must avoid crowding and contact with others,” she said.
As for her activity on the Internet, Atrash said she was constantly contributing content to the social media platforms of Baladna Radio.
“I believe in building a media entity on social media that has people’s trust,” she stated, “more than in building up my own name.”