Covid-19 and media freedom: GBC was not allowed inside hospital wards to see and report on the pandemic's front line

COVID 19 is the biggest event the GBC Newsroom has ever covered.

We have felt and feel a huge sense of responsibility to get the tone right and also to show people the reality of what’s going on in our hospitals.

In Spring last year we spoke to intensivists, doctors, nurses, midwives, cancer specialists, paramedics and others about how they were preparing for a surge in Covid cases. Our health professionals were keen to speak to GBC and share their experiences of the pandemic so far, the planning they were doing and the precautions they were taking. Their professionalism shone through in our reports. They helped to show the public the GHA’s preparedness for Covid-19.

In early January this year, as cases soared and a second lock down was announced, the GBC Newsroom knew it was time to get back to the reality of what the virus can do: to show people what health professionals were having to cope with.

In the first week of January, we spoke to the Medical Director and the Director of Public Health. Both suggested the medical professionals making up the GHA’s Gold Command were in favour of GBC being allowed access to document the medical reality of the pandemic: it was suggested we should film inside CCU, Rainbow Ward, Covid Wards (Victoria & John Ward), 111 call centre and A&E.

We formally requested permission to film inside the hospital on the 7th of January. We added ERS to our request later. One day later the press office told us the Health Minister had said “no”.

In the following weeks and throughout February & March, we tried very hard to persuade the Government to let us in. We were told verbally there were good reasons not to allow us in: infection control and patient privacy.

In many countries, this combination of health worries and privacy concerns have made it difficult for journalists to go into hospitals and capture a firsthand portrait of this part of the pandemic. But in many cases the news crews and the hospitals/authorities have been able to overcome these concerns. You have probably seen powerful coverage in UK and Spanish media. 

The only footage of busy Covid wards our viewers have seen on GBC is footage taken in UK, Spanish and Italian hospitals. The GHA provided some body-cam footage of the Critical Care Unit which we have broadcast. But we were not able to film inside our hospital wards ourselves in the first months of 2021.

A picture tells a thousand words. We felt GBC viewers deserved to see sensitively filmed footage of our wards here in St Bernard’s Hospital when we were illustrating a news story about the crisis in Gibraltar.

As a public broadcaster, GBC endeavours to provide accurate, reliable information to the public, and - by so doing - prevent panic and foster people’s understanding of and cooperation with restrictions and public health measures deemed necessary by the authorities. 

In the same way as GBC viewers expressed gratitude for our reports from inside the hospital last Spring, others have questioned why our cameras did not show them the inside of the hospital or ERS during the deadly wave that claimed so many lives.

The reality is it is against the law to film inside the hospital without permission. We tried hard in January, February and March to get that permission but it was not granted.

We did film interviews inside the hospital in that time. But only where the vaccination programme was being delivered and on the top floor, where the Minister & the Medical Director have their offices.

As to filming inside the wards and speaking to health professionals there, we appealed to the Chief Minister directly. He said he understood why we needed to see and report on the front line of the pandemic. His press office tried to facilitate access through the office of the Health Minister. Unfortunately, it got stuck there.

There’s a bit of a twist in this tale. GBC now knows that two weeks after our initial request, the Health Ministry made a proposal to senior GHA staff for a private company to be brought into the COVID intensive care unit and COVID wards so that vetted images could be issued to the media without the media themselves being given access.

We know that a conversation was had among health professionals about how to mitigate the risks and how PPE, and time in each ward, would be managed.

We’ve seen this in writing, black upon white - the Health Ministry was prepared to invite a private company into the CCU & Covid wards, while denying access to the public broadcaster GBC.

The International Press Institute has urged governments worldwide to recognize the crucial role of independent news media in the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure that emergency measures to tackle the disease are not used as a pretext to censor news or interfere with media freedom.

COVID-19 poses a major threat to global public health and the free flow of independent news is more essential than ever, both in informing the public on vital measures to contain the virus as well as in maintaining an open dialogue and debate on the adequacy of those measures.

In summary, we wanted to show you - sensitively - what the deadliest weeks in Gibraltar’s recent history looked like, how doctors & nurses were coping with the pressure, and the (no doubt excellent) care our hospitalised COVID-positive patients received. We wanted you to know GBC was unable to do this as permission was not granted.

Media independence is a core principle underlying democracy. Covid-19 is a public health crisis but it should not be used as a pretext for restricting the public's access to independent information.