The Press Union of Liberia or PUL has urged the Government of Liberia to concentrate its energy on fighting the deadly Ebola virus outbreak rather than trying to prevent journalists from doing their work.
The PUL statement comes as the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare outlined a new policy for media coverage, requiring journalists wanting to photograph, conduct interviews or do video recordings at Ebola treatment centers to first obtain written permission from the Health Ministry.
Assistant Health Minister for Preventive Services and head of the Ebola Incident Management Team, Tolbert Nyenswah, told reporters that the new media access policy aims to protect the privacy of patients and healthcare workers as well as the health and safety of Liberian and international journalists. But PUL President, Abdullai Kamara, contends that the new policy shows that the government is avoiding the real work it has on its hands, which include mobilizing resources to fight the Ebola outbreak.
“We find it very offensive. There are two things we are noticing here. Firstly, the government functionaries probably don’t understand the context of free expression. They are actually working in contempt of the media, which is not in the best interest.
The policy doesn’t recognize the partnership that the media has been developing in fighting this Ebola virus in our country,” Kamara said. Assistant Minister Nyenswah said he would ask the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism to enforce the new policy with both local and foreign journalists.
“We have noted with grave concerns that photographs have been taken in treatment centers while patients are going in and being attended to by doctors… That’s invading the privacy, the autonomy and respect and dignity of the patients,” Nyenswah said on Monday at the Information Ministry. The PUL president said most of the Ebola-related news journalists are covering is not coming from health facilities.
“The truth is lots of people who are alleged to be suffering from the Ebola virus are not really in hospitals. So, does that mean the government has the capacity to stop people from going to different parts of the city to speak to alleged Ebola victims? There are a lot of sick people who are not in health facilities,” he said.
Kamara said the government is trying to fight the media as an enemy in different ways. He also criticized the government’s new licensing guidelines for journalists announced on September 30th. He said the ministry’s new licensing announcement is an attempt to roll “back efforts made by previous governments to make the media operating environment conducive.” However, Deputy Information Minister, Isaac Jackson, said the PUL president should seek legal advice before speaking on matters of law.
“When you are representing people, you must be able to consult before you speak or else your conduct will even undermine the credibility of the institution you seek for. In one way you have to consult that what good leadership does, not when you finish speaking before you begin to ask questions; you ask question before you speak, if you do that your leadership will be more respected”, he told a regular press briefing held by the ministry Tuesday.
“For the last 10-15 years, successive governments have refused to implement the rule which requires the government to accredit journalists in our country. But as recent as last week, the government announced it is going to repeal the accreditation of journalists, and this only speaks to the fact that the government is fighting the media,” Kamara expressed.
In a statement issued following a weekend emergency meeting of media executives, the PUL said that by “bringing up these issues, the government has not only failed to implement domestic and international promises, but is now undermining the free press, censoring the media, and slipping into attitudes that led the country to more than 14 years of brutal civil war.”