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Iraq: UNESCO, journalists and public authorities join hands to tackle the ‘disinfodemic’

In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, rumors and inaccurate facts about the virus circulated in Iraq. Among these, stories about alleged treatments of COVID-19 such as herbs and nicotine led to reports of a rise in purchases of these products. A doctor even started to use non-certified substances to treat patients in his clinic.


To strengthen capacities to debunk these rumors and prevent their dangerous consequences on citizens’ health and in certain cases on social stability, UNESCO, in partnership with the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC), the  Iraqi Journalists  Syndicate,  Coalition  38,  the  Media  and  Culture  Office  of  the  Prime Minister,  and the Media and Communications Committee  in the Iraqi Parliament,  as well as relevant experts in the field of safety of journalists, has trained 1,360 journalists in fact-checking, professional and health reporting and safety. The training was part of the #CoronavirusFacts project funded by the European Union. Equipped with better skills and networks to detect and debunk disinformation, these journalists actively started to report on and call out inaccuracies circulating in the public discourse and produce fact-based stories about the pandemic to help citizens make evidence-based decisions about their health.


The journalists trained under the project have continued to exchange on disinformation linked to COVID-19 through ten dedicated fact-checking pages on Facebook which now have garnered around 13,000 members within the journalism community in Iraq. A smaller group of 25 journalists trained, mostly women, also went on to establish the web-based Iraqi Young News Agency (IYNA) specifically aiming to capture and report on mis- and disinformation on COVID-19 circulating both in the public space and in media reports and to offer support to other news agencies to provide fact-based information linked to the pandemic in Iraq. UNESCO and the CMC have continued to support this news agency to strengthen and sustain their operations as they establish themselves and expand reporting during this critical time-period.


As a group of young female journalists we are trying to reach out to female journalists and the public with the necessary information on the vaccines and the pandemic (…) We have debunked more than 10 stories of misinformation around COVID-19 and published the verified information.

-- Sana Hassan, Editor in Chief of the Iraqi Young News Agency


Early on during the project, alerted by the articles calling out disinformation and willing to tackle the rise of disinformation, the Iraqi Ministry of Health also took action to further enhance facts-based communication on COVID-19 and publicly emphasized the need to rely on international medical protocols against the pandemic. In June 2020, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance, and the Iraqi Council of Representatives, asked UNESCO if the authorities’ media and public information staff could be allowed to join journalists in the ongoing #CoronavirusFacts project trainings.


The trainings sessions provided by UNESCO to the official media staff, help the media and public information staff to enhance their skills in terms of fact-checking and the media coverage of the Pandemic.

-- Hussuian Zamil, Media and Communications Director, Governmental Committee to respond to COVID-19


As a result, approximately 250 public information officials of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance, the Council of Representatives, the Ministry of Youth, the Ministry of Interior, the Media Office of the Prime Minister and the CMC have since been trained together with journalists, fact-checkers and content producers under the project.  The joint trainings have created synergies by enhancing information exchanges between authorities and media professionals both through the sharing of experiences as part of the trainings, but also by establishing direct contacts that enhance access to official COVID-19 information and channels for verification of facts going forward.


It was such a useful training course, it enabled me to identify the information on COVID-19 and recognize misinformation. I am now able to use the techniques of fact-checking and train my colleagues a well.

--Raed Al Zaidi, journalist from Babylon


On 21 February 2021, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office set up a special committee aimed at fighting disinformation and supporting fact-checking related to COVID-19 to be headed by the CMC and consisting of Public Information officers of several ministries. Building on the previous collaboration n under the #CoronavirusFacts project, UNESCO was asked to support the new committee with guidance and capacity building for their staff.


The above activities are some amongst several others under the #CoronavirusFacts project in Iraq. Some of these include public information campaigns raising awareness on COVID-19 safety measures and the fight against misinformation broadcasted on the main TV and radio channels as well as on social media platforms. Overall, the visual material reached over 3 million TV viewers. UNESCO and the CMC have also worked closely together to strengthen the tools for fact-checking of Arabic online content which remains underdeveloped in comparison to tools available to for example English and French speakers. With the newly gained skills, tools and knowledge, and the newly formed contacts and networks across Iraq, the project will also leave a legacy impact of increased resilience towards the spread of disinformation during future crisis.


About the #CoronavirusFacts project


Based on the central tenet that information is the opposite of disinformation, the UNESCO project #CoronavirusFacts leverages the pivotal role of freedom of expression and access to information to address information needs in times of COVID-19 and to tackle the massive wave of disinformation which threatens to impact democracy, sustainable development and stability around the world. Funded by the European Union, the project which has activities both at the global level, in four regions and in nine countries, supports professional, diverse and independent media’s capacity to report on the pandemic; strengthens local fact-checking organisations to debunk misinformation; and empowers youth and other citizens to critically process what they read and hear linked to COVID-19 through training in media and information literacy. Due to unprecedented challenges for the media and digital technology sectors, UNESCO has created a Resource Center of selected responses to COVID-19. 


To learn more, visit https://en.unesco.org/covid19/disinfodemic/coronavirusfacts