LIBERIA: Government, Press Union of Liberia Clash over Covid-19 Passes For Journalists
MONROVIA – The Government of Liberia (GOL), through the Deputy Minister for Public Affairs at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), Eugene Fahngon, has accused the leadership of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) of massively duplicating Covid-19 press passes intended for selective journalists and accredited media institutions operating in the country.
The Covid-19 passes were printed by government, through the Ministry to exempt journalists from the 3PM stay home order declared by President George Manneh Weah under the state of emergency to curb the spread of the coronavirus across Liberia.
In a live podcast on Friday, May 1, Minister Fahngon claimed that the PUL leadership headed by its President Charles Coffey allegedly “mass-produced” the passes, something which he said, runs contrary to the declaration made by President Weah.
He claimed that though the business, religious and other communities are in full complaince of the state of emergency declared, the “PUL is the only institution that have decided to disregard and disrespect the office of the President”.
“The PUL mass-produced the passes that are circulating today to disrespect the office of the President. In the President’s address, we were instructed to have passed in order to do the job. We did not issue a policy; we don’t have a new policy. We are only implementing statutorily what we’re charged with the responsibility to do”.
Minister Fahngon continued: “The PUL leadership cannot use the Minister of Information as a scapegoat to disregard the President’s statement. We will not allow that. They are attempting to scapegoat the Minister of Information on the decision that they took a long time ago. We are not going to play politics like they are doing. we are here to carry on a statutory mandate.
He denied reports that the Ministry has endorsed the use of valid Identification cards by journalists to roam the streets in order to do their jobs above 3PM.
He noted that though lot of media institutions operating in Liberia remain cooperative, the leadership of the PUL has been flagrantly disregarding the state of emergency.
Minister Fahngon noted that the use of working ID cards by employees of non-essential government ministries, agencies and commissions as well as other non-essential private entitites is not given credence under the state of emergency declared by the President.
Among other things, President Weah on April 8, 2020 declared that “all non-essential businesses and government offices will remain closed with the exception of essential businesses, health facilities and a few government offices such as: the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), National Port Authority (NPA), Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) and the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS); and accredited media where only a skeleton staffs will be given passes”.
“The PUL mass-produced the passes that are circulating today to disrespect the office of the President. In the President’s address, we were instructed to have passed in order to do the job. We did not issue a policy; we don’t have a new policy. We are only implementing statutorily what we’re charged with the responsibility to do”.– Eugene Fahngon, Deputy Minister for Public Affairs, Information Ministry
The Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs maintained that MICAT is the government’s institution clothed with the authority to accredit media entities operating in Liberia, and as such, the ministry will make a determination on the issuance of new passes.
“We are the ones charged to give the passes; therefore, we called in the Press Union. My boss appointed me to steer the committee with regards to passes. We designed these passes and I worked with the PUL to issue the passes”.
“The PUL President and myself-while issuing the passes that night, the electricity went off. But we were about 30% completed. I only know about this sheet of names and institutions that we give passes to that night”.
He noted that though he requested the PUL President to return the next day to continue the process along with him, Mr. Coffey reportedly came at the ministry and requested a local contractor to continue the printing of the passes at the time he (Fahngon) was nowhere around.
Minister Fahngon said Mr. Coffey later admitted to unilaterally printing the Covid-19 passes for journalists, something which contributed to numerous problems which warrant the need for a change of those passes.
“All other press passes out there were produced by Mr. Coffey and given out there by him. This was the same thing we were trying to avoid, we accepted him in good fate. With the situation on hand-just as intended for every media persons to have passes, so were our passes mass produced, duplicated; business people have them, taxi drivers, truck drivers and everybody”.
He disclosed that the PUL President was requested to bring the listings of all media institutions he allegedly issued passes, inorder to ensure that new passes are printed with “good security features and designs, but Mr. Coffey could not produce it”.
He threatened that the ministry will not allow “girlfriends and boyfriends, business people, kehkeh and motorcycle drivers” to obtain press passes during this state of emergency.
But speaking in an interview with FrontPage Africa via telephone on Friday, the President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Charles Coffey, challenged Minister Fahngon to provide evidences of he (Coffey) spearheading the printing or duplication of additional passes for journalists and others.
He said the Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs should also provide proof of “girlfriends, boyfriends, kehkeh and motorcycle drivers” who are carrying press passes during this emergency period.
“The allegations are false and misleading. They are calculated attempt from Minister Fahngon’s own inability to conform to the process of working with the press to move forward. I don’t have the authority to print passes. The role of the PUL was to identify media institutions and their members. We did not print passes”.– Charles Coffey, President, Press Union of Liberia
He maintained that journalists should not succuumb to the displaying of passes at security checkpoints anymore, but they should use their valid identification cards while carrying on their assigned tasks and responsibilities.
Mr. Coffey added that the PUL will not subscribe or encourage any of its members to obtain new passes from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, and as such, funds budgeted for the printing of new passes for journalists should go towards the payment of debts owed media institutions as stressed by the Publishers Association of Liberia (PAL) recently.
PAL, sometimes ago, alarmed over huge debts government owes various media institutions operating in the country, and threatened actions if the government fails to settle its arrears.
But the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill has pleged government’s willingness and commitment to settle debts owed media institutions.
According to Mr. Coffey, the media need funding during these critical times in the country’s history to operate, and as such, MICAT should ensure that government provides support to media institutions by settling its indebtedness and paying for jingles being aired by these institutions.
“The allegations are false and misleading. They are calculated attempt from Minister Fahngon’s own inability to conform to the process of working with the press to move forward. I don’t have the authority to print passes. The role of the PUL was to identify media institutions and their members. We did not print passes”.
Mr. Coffey continued: “Why he didn’t arrest any of them (taxi and kehkeh drivers) to ask who give them the passes. Our position is still the same; the PUL is not going to submit to the printing of new passes. We will use our identification cards as required by the Joint Security”.
According to him, the latest suggestion of the printing of new press passes is intended to silence media institutions that are critical on state actors during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Minister Fahngon is trying to bring in the President to create the kind of sentiment that he thinks can help him. The new directive is coming from Minister Fahngon; not the government-It is a plan to deny other media institutions that they perceived of being critical to state actors and the PUL as a mother institution will not condone”.