Liberia: Government Clamping Down on the Media amid COVID-19 Fight?
Monrovia – The government of Liberia claims the role of the media in the fight against the relentless spread of COVID-19 cannot be overemphasized, but it is, at the same time, cleverly attempting to restrict journalists’ access to information during the state of emergency declared by the President to enforce health protocols.
The Deputy Minister of Information, Eugene Fahngon, who suddenly declared as null and void press passes issued by the ministry to media institutions has threatened actions permitted by the state of emergency against any media practitioner who would not be in possession of the latest access pass.
The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) had earlier called on all of its members not to accept the new access pass, claiming that it’s an attempt by the government to deny some media institutions access to information during this state of emergency.
The Deputy Minister of Information had claimed that the initial passes given to the media have been heavily duplicated but has since failed to show proof of said duplication.
At the regular Thursday Information Ministry press briefing, Min. Fahngon stressed that President George Manneh Weah in his declaration of a state of emergency stated that only the “skeleton staff of accredited media outlet” would be allowed free movement during the state of emergency.
He said some officials of government have been denied passes and the PUL is no exception to the President’s mandate.
“We are saying we are staying away from the passes because Eugene’s action is unilateral and public policy, especially during pandemic you discuss with stakeholders and sectors and discuss your public policy with concern so that we come up with our ideas as to how your policy will impact the sector,” said Mr. Daniel Nyankonah, vice president of the PUL.
He said the Ministry of Information earlier wanted grant only three accreditations to each media institution, which they at the PUL kicked against and called for the accreditation to be granted based on the capacity of the media outlet.
Mr. Nyankonah said it was based on that agreement reached that the PUL subscribed to the allowing the Ministry issue passes to media outlets.
But the backpedaling of the Information Ministry without any regard to the Union, according to Nyakonah raises eyebrows.
He said, “To come out without information and due regard to the Press Union and issue public notice that the media passes will be changed…we just see it as being disingenuous and undermines the fight against COVID-19.”
“We are saying we are staying away from the passes because Eugene’s action is unilateral and public policy, especially during pandemic you discuss with stakeholders and sectors and discuss your public policy with concern so that we come up with our ideas as to how your policy will impact the sector.”– Daniel Nynakonah, Vice President, Press Union of Liberia
He said he has called on all the members of the Press Union to stay away from the new issuance, especially after the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Mr. Nathaniel McGill, had called a local radio to confirm that Minister Fahngon is acting under the instruction of the President.
He said the Union will be having a mass meeting with journalists on Friday to come up with a collective decision on whether to continue reporting on COVID-19 for the sake of humanity or stay away en mass to avoid brutality from members of the joint security.
“Why the media? The media remains a partner; the last time we checked, there were accolades given to the Press Union of Liberia for contributing the defeat of Ebola in this country. Up to now, there are people in the public including experts who are recognizing the media for her role and contribution in the sustenance of democracy,” Nyankonah expressed as he wondered why the media is the only target for change of access pass.
It can be recalled that Solicitor General of Liberia, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephas threatened to seize the equipment, shutdown and prosecute media institutions who may publish or air what he referred to as ‘fake news’ during this state of emergency.
“There is a state of emergency, what has happened under Article 87 [of the Constitution] is that all basic fundamental rights have been suspended…” he said.
According to him, under that same article, subsection ‘b’, the issue of free speech, by law and by the declaration that curtails of freedom of assembly effectively might also affect free speech.
“This government has been quite tolerant in allowing people to clearly and distinctly express their views,” he said.
He alleged that some media institutions have been using their platforms to spread ‘fake news’, which, according to him, is hindering the government’s effort in the COVID-19 fight. He, however, did not cite an example of such fake news or the media entities involved.
Cllr. Cephas emphasized: “Beginning today there will be no more warning, I repeat, I am the Solicitor General and Chief Prosecutor of this Republic, there will be no more warning. Any media institution that decides to spread fake news, we’ll just move in and seize your equipment, we’ll keep it and we’ll ask for the revocation of your license until after the coronavirus. And even after that, there will be a contest in court and it would be difficult for you to get your license.
So, we want to send out a clear message – stop spreading false news, do the right thing. We have gotten enough of that. We want to send out this message, there will be no warning, this is the last warning.”
He also said people residing in Liberia who spread falsehoods on social media like Facebook would be haunted and prosecuted during the state of emergency.