Media and Communications with indigenous peoples in the pandemic

Denis Yety, Waorani technician and Andrés Tapia, CONFENIAE communication manager, deliver copies of the booklet "Indications to prevent Coronavirus in indigenous communities of Ecuador", to women in the Waorani community, within the framework of the UNESCO project on Interculturality, indigenous languages and COVID-19. @ CONFENAIE


The pandemic highlighted the importance of swift, good communication, carrying accurate information in a format and language that would be meaningful for its users. For indigenous peoples, the major challenge was to be in a reliable information stream, avoid disinformation and have the informational tools to prepare and respond to the health crisis. UNESCO offices responded to improve communications and fight the infodemic.

Now, more than ever, Governments worldwide should support indigenous peoples to implement their own plans to protect their communities and participate in the elaboration of nationwide initiatives to ensure these do not discriminate against them. States must ensure that indigenous peoples have access to information about COVID-19 in their languages and urgent special measures need to be taken to ensure availability and access to culturally appropriate medical services. It is a major challenge that public health facilities are often scarce in indigenous communities. - Geneva, 18 May 2020

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay

In the feedback which UNESCO received from indigenous peoples’ organizations and partners through the IYIL2019 information channels, the strong message was that for people to respond appropriately to the pandemic they required accurate, clear and reliable information. Some indigenous peoples live in locations without any internet connection, limited cellphone reception and sometimes limited or no electricity. The challenge of communicating about the pandemic, with appropriate social, legal, educational and cultural responses, all hinge on the choice of the medium of communication, its relevance, the language of the message and its credibility and cultural appropriateness for the communities receiving the messages. The right of indigenous people to express themselves is equally important to their right to access information. 

As demonstrated in previous humanitarian crises such as Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, when information is provided in languages that people can understand, many lives can be saved. Languages are important during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are an integral part of the communication strategy and uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms of their users. UNESCO for example, UNESCO mobilized its partners’ radio network all across the Latin American and Caribbean region. Informative and preventive radio spots against the spread of the virus were produced, distributed and discussed in local languages in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). These types of multi-stakeholder cooperation are replicated to ensure greater impact of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The confusing infodemic about COVID-19 pandemic is made life-threatening due to the ‘dis-infodemic’ dimensions that combinedeliberate disinformationand inadvertent falsehoods. . Given that COVID-19 is spreading to countries where levels of poverty and malnutrition are high and other disadvantages affect indigenous peoples, it is essential to join efforts to expose and debunk incorrect and misleading content, and to ensure information sharing and provide access to reliable and accurate health information in lesser-used, minority and indigenous languages. Appropriate communication channels, means and formats should be used. Furthermore, it is an imperative that specific initiatives are developed and strengthened to empower indigenous peoples with media and information literacy competencies (information, media, and digital skills) needed to detect disinformation and to resist the disinfodemic beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

For indigenous peoples, there are challenges that need to be addressed related to the provision of access to life-saving information for these communities, who are often based in rural areas with absent or limited broadband connectivity or access to other media (radio systems, satellite phones, etc.). Sharing understandable messages with the traditional and youth leaders represents an effective strategy for reaching out to other community members. 

Targeted Actions/Initiatives

UNESCO has developed a tailored approach to communication on COVID-19 to engage Ecuador’s indigenous peoples in advancing prevention actions to protect this highly vulnerable segment of the population. Working hand in hand with indigenous associations and leadership, the Ecuadorian government, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and Community Radios Network (CORAPE), UNESCO has developed specific intercultural activities and communication products in community territories to limit contagion. It has been a collaborative and consensual process sustained through technical and social dialogue. All agreements have been taken in the framework of the “Plan for health promotion and risk communication to respond to COVID-19 pandemic for peoples and nationalities of Ecuador".

Intercultural mediation is focused on the cultural, social and environmental needs of indigenous peoples. It is not an adaptation process but a critical analysis that considers the context and resources available for communities to follow prevention measures. The success of prevention communication largely depends on the consultation process with indigenous communities. These consultations and consensus-based actions allow the appropriation of the contents through self-identification, social empowerment and community involvement in decision-making. In this regard, the indigenous grassroots organizations themselves make the decisions on communication products, messages, interpreted indigenous languages and means for transmission.

Given the limited access of indigenous communities to the internet, radio is the most influential media. In the case of indigenous territories, it is essential to take advantage of the available networks. Community networks, whether radio or social organizations, have a reach and presence in connection with the communication practices of the communities. The Coordinator of the Community Radios Network (CORAPE), which brings together the indigenous community radio stations of the territory, is a central partner for the purposes of the project. The project is in line with an inclusive human-rights approach, including indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and Montubio (mestizo coastal) communities have been included as target populations.
The community radio project includes the following communication products: a) 20 radio spots in indigenous languages and cultural codes of Afro-descendant and Montubio people to be transmitted through the network of indigenous community radio stations; b) Production, printing and distribution in indigenous languages and cultural codes of Afro-descendant and Montubio (mixed descent) people of a booklet on preventive measures to manage COVID-19 in territories and community settings. This booklet was formulated collaboratively within the framework of the aforementioned Plan and validated by the World Health Organization - WHO / Pan American Health Organization – PAHO.

UNESCO has taken part in inter-agency initiatives coordinated by the Office of the Resident Coordinator, notably in Costa Rica, to provide culturally appropriate health assistance to indigenous peoples in the context of the crisis through the development of messages in indigenous languages but also through the identification of mediators and the recruitment of interpreters to provide transparent and contextualized information on the health assistance provided. 

Targeted Actions/Initiatives

The Secretariat of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) has created the dedicated web page “COVID-19 Pandemic: Language Matters”. It includes a collection of resources in and about indigenous languages related to COVID-19 prevention (public health messages and recommendations), as well as statements and policy-guidelines issued by other UN agencies and other organizations, and information about relevant initiatives that aim to tackle the negative impact of the pandemic on indigenous communities worldwide. These resources, links and other material is shared daily on the related IYIL2019 social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), followed by thousands of indigenous language users from all over the world, who often repost the information in their relevant local networks, either on social media or different communications tools, such as radio, television, and other. Active indigenous media and youth organizations also reach out to the Secretariat to share relevant resources, regularly updated on the dedicated page. 

UNESCO dedicated one of its Social and Human Sciences webinar series “Inclusion in the time of COVID-19” to indigenous peoples (on 5 June 2020). Through testimonies from different actors, including the new UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, the webinar brought forth diverse perspectives on the ways the pandemic has adversely affected the enjoyment of basic rights by indigenous peoples. The webinar highlighted issues of access to information, on consultations between government and traditional authorities, on economic and health vulnerabilities, on indigenous values of solidarity and intergenerational care, and on issues of cross-border movement for herders. The series highlighted the role of the International Coalition of Inclusive Sustainable Cities. The webinar promoted international dialogue and the promotion of good practices of successful interventions that could be replicated or serve as source of inspiration.

In connection with the UNESCO Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Alliance COVID-19 Response, one webinar focused on MIL for Indigenous Peoples. The webinar gathered indigenous actors from Australia, Brazil, and Costa Rica and highlighted the challenges faced by indigenous communities and case studies of initiatives that seek to ensure the accessibility of credible information and knowledge in local languages and enhancing their media and information literacy capacities to combat misinformation and disinformation and to tackle racism and discrimination by mobilizing more inclusive online and offline indigenous communities. 

Through partnerships with the UNESCO-led MIL Alliance (GAPMIL) Youth Committee, the MIL Alliance Youth Ambassadors developed the Health Information Literacy Alliance. Verified COVID-19 and MIL related was translated and distributed in 70 languages including indigenous dialects from Brazil India and the Arabe Region. 

To counter the spread of disinformation connected to the new coronavirus, UNESCO produced a series of audio and video messages as well as MIL learning resources. These resources were translated and adapted in 45 languages, including indigenous languages from Africa and Asia. In Myanmar, for instance, to reach the maximum audiences, the UNESCO resources were translated and adapted in 19 local languages. The same was done in Africa. UNESCO, with its partners (Radio France International and France Media Monde), made available the resources in Fulfulde, Mandingue, Swahili, and Wolof. UNESCO is committed to further support the Member States with new audio, video, and MIL graphics resources for indigenous communities.

Within the framework of the project « Youth as Researchers », in partnership with UNESCO Chairs (NUI Galway ; Penn State University), knowledge and data are being collected on, with and by young women and men from different regions, including indigenous youth, around a set of important questions emerging from the pandemic crisis, such as the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), rising inequalities, mental health, intergenerational relationships, the impact of school closures and as well as their consequences (positive or negative) on the resilience capacity.