Media and humanitarians in crisis situations: Lessons learned from the Zika outbreak

Guaranteeing pluralism of sources and content and editorial independence, is part of UNESCO’s mission to promote and protect media's principles, even in times of epidemic and crisis. It is equally essential to empower local populations with the right to be informed on public policies and financial spending of humanitarian aid.

From 14 to 15 July 2016, UNESCO brought together media and humanitarians in a workshop entitled “Inform, Engage, Investigate: Media and humanitarians in crisis situations – Lessons learned from the Zika outbreak”. The workship was held in Panama City, Panama with the participation of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Zika outbreaks, which began in 2015, have caused increasing alarm in countries across the world, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. It continues to pose significant challenges in terms of populations’ access to the accurate preventive information and life-saving behaviors.

The workshop represented the first regional initiative aimed to address the relationship and the issue of cooperation between media and humanitarian organizations in times of crisis. The large gathering of public, private and associative media outlets, major humanitarian organizations and numerous UN agencies ensured a great representation of regional actors involved in journalism, risk communication and emergency response.

This initiative brought together over 50 high-level participants from public, private and associative media organizations and associations, such as the International Association of Broadcasting, TV Globo, Voice of America, World Association of Community Radios, World Federation of Science Journalists and leading NGOs, such as Caritas Internationalis, National Societies of Red Cross, Refugee Education Trust, Save the Children, World Vision. Numerous UN organizations, such as UNIDSR, UNICEF, OCHA, PAHO, WHO, World Bank, part of the UN Country Team and RedLAC Communication Group ( participated as well.

The methodology, consisting of 3 thematic sessions – each composed of a plenary, group work and conclusions – ensured a dynamic and participative atmosphere where every point of view could be shared and heard. Each session covered a specific angle related to crisis communication:

How to communicate scientific knowledge through the media, make sure it reaches the right population and ensure that they will fully understand and react upon that information?

How can humanitarians effectively reach and engage affected populations through the media?

How to preserve media’s principles in emergency and disaster situations and use investigative journalism to expose potential corruption around aid?

During the 3rd session placed under UNESCO’s lead, participants shared their respective experiences, expertise and expectations regarding the ways to guarantee media’s watchdog function during emergencies. It has been clearly established that humanitarian organizations rely strongly on media regarding the efficiency of their aid plans. Improved coordination on risk communication between media and humanitarians can significantly enhance disaster-preparedness and response. However, it is important to reaffirm the independence of media. Media have to be considered as free partners and not as mere channels and relays for humanitarian’s communications strategies. Media have to be able to produce their own content when covering a crisis through investigative journalism – and not settle to only broadcast or publish humanitarian’s statements of the situation. Although humanitarian organizations can be used as sources of information due to their expertise, it does not exempt them from being investigated by the media. This is especially true when dealing with aid’s management and use of financial resources.

The workshop closed on an intervention form Mr. Walter Cotte – Director of IFRC Americas – followed by conclusions and final remarks from Mr. Frank La Rue – Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at UNESCO. During his speech, Mr. Cotte promoted communications as means to foster community engagement in issues that affect us, as citizens. “Communication is inherent to us as human beings” he said, “[…] we need more capacity to understand how communications can help improve our behaviors: […] to participate to the solving of issues that affect our societies”. Mr. La Rue stressed the importance of the editorial independence of media and investigative journalism regarding the transparency of disaster-prevention and relief public policies, as well as use of resources by local authorities and external organizations. According to Mr. La Rue: “[…] the press also plays a supervision role. Investigative journalism should be pursued at all times, even in situations of crisis. Journalists are part of the thermometer that verifies the efficiency of policies and funds.” And added: “Because consequences of crisis are always exacerbated when resources are misused.”

By the end of the two days, the participants unanimously highlighted and agreed on the following outcomes: They recognized the necessity for a steady coordination between the media and humanitarian organizations before, during and after an emergency situation. They understood the importance of training for media and humanitarian organizations to better acknowledge each other’s issues, intentions, interests and on how to work together during disasters. They underlined that the defense of editorial independence, media pluralism and access to information is a prerequisite to disaster response, a fundamental right.

Given the success and positive feedback from the participants, there is a request to UNESCO to replicate the workshop on a sub-regional and international level to continue synergizing the relations between media and humanitarians.



Mirta Lourenço (m.lourenco(at)