Since the onset of the H1N1 Swine Flu virus and the establishment of the National Supervisory Committee for Combating Swine Flu, both the Ministry of Health and the committee have been dealing with an extreme lack of transparency with journalists.

If we ask those who work in both Arabic and English publications in the country about how the ministry and the committee rarely talk to their representatives, we will find the same answer. Everyone will tell you that the committee lacks transparency.

I will talk about my personal experience to shed light on some of the difficulties we face as journalists, in dealing with both the Ministry and the committee.

My telephone calls are ignored on a daily basis as Dr Ali Shakar, the Director-General in the Ministry of Health and Head of the Technical Committee for Combating H1N1, refuses to take reporters's calls on his mobile or landline.

The serious question here is: If the head of the committee tasked with combating swine flu does not answer inquiries of reporters, where are these journalists supposed to turn to for answers?

Moreover, where is the transparency boasted by the committee? Ignoring reporters' telephone calls has infected Dr Hanif Hassan, the Minister of Health, as well, who has also distanced himself from newspapers and reporters.

As I mentioned earlier, I am talking about my personal experience. I am not talking on behalf of other colleagues who are facing the same problem.

The strange thing is that if we talk to any official or physician at the Ministry of Health, we are told immediately that the only person authorised to answer our enquiries is Shakar.

We do not actually know how the committee interprets the word 'transparency'. Is ignoring the media a form of transparency? Or is hiding information from the media considered transparency?

If the committee considers evading journalists as the best method to deal with the media, then we must say that this is a rather new concept of interaction that has not been utilised before.

The mystery increases as reporters find the same officials responsible for the National Committee for Combating swine flu appearing on television on an almost daily basis. In front of TV cameras, these officials talk with ease and reveal new information that has not been circulated before.

Since the establishment of the swine flu combating committee, Shakar has appeared four or five times on Dubai and Abu Dhabi's TV channels. The same thing applies to Hassan.

Some of the strange situations I encountered at the Gulf News office in Abu Dhabi with my colleague, Dina El Shammaa, who covers the Ministry of Health beat, entail our contact with a physician who works in the health sector, and is connected to the swine flu combating committee.

On the telephone, he told us that "I was put in a very awkward position because I gave a statement to Gulf News and not to the [a certain] newspaper!"

He added that he received a call from a responsible figure in the committee and another call from a journalist in that newspaper, and was chided for giving Gulf News the statement first. He added that he was asked to give that particular newspaper the priority while giving statements.

I did not want to write about this issue if it weren't for the statement that was given to me for Gulf News by a physician in this committee to the effect that the UAE Ministry of Health will demand that expatriates in the UAE on holiday abroad produce a medical certificate proving they are not infected with swine flu before returning to the country.

The very next day, a senior health official squashed suggestions the government planned to take this action.

However, the senior health officials at the committee were not aware that the physician who revealed the information to me, also told me that the committee will try to find out who gave out the information, thus it will postpone applying the decision to take away the 'scoop' effect from us.

The very same thing happened with Emarat Al Youm before it was suspended. Two and a half months ago, with the onset of the HINI swine flu disease, the Arabic daily newspaper published on its front page news about new procedures to be applied at airports, such as installing swine flu thermal imaging detector devices and quarantining people with high fever. These cameras were not yet installed at the airports; hence, the committee denied the news completely.

Less than one week after this incident, the health authorities in the country applied all the health procedures mentioned in Emarat Al Youm.

The committee's very strange way in dealing with the press makes us wonder about the true intentions of some - not all - of its members.

Why should the committee discriminate between newspapers in giving out its news? Why would it cooperate with certain newspapers and refuse to deal with others? Why would its members avoid answering our questions and telephone calls? And why does the committee resort to denying news published in newspapers, which usually proves to be correct a few days later?

Hiding facts usually leads to rumours, and when that happens it is very difficult to erase its effects from the minds of people.

So, does the committee want to establish the principle of hiding facts and spreading of rumours?

Your comments

A well written article. The Swine Flu is one of the most essential topics that must be covered by the media to the public. The public needs answers and if it is too hectic for anyone to give any, then we are simply referring to the virus as a topic that simply went mysterious. I do pray that the Ministry of Health will bring out good values in sharing some information with the media so that the public can avoid spreading rumors and to avoid panic in terms the current progress status of the virus. It's a cultural factor in communication, the media always wants the answers, and the media is a very powerful tool.
Posted: August 03, 2009, 10:48

We're talking about life or death... It is matter of people's lives, It's precisely the time when we need transparency and cooperation to avoid any deaths... We thank Gulf News for its benevolence and proximity to us.
Posted: August 03, 2009, 09:30