By: D Kaihenneh Sengbeh
It was funny but serious. The message was quite clear. Everyone burst into laughter and quickly turned quiet—listening, again. The driver knew occupants of his vehicle were religiously listening. He raised the volume of the radio. Three voices sounding reminiscent of Kissi, Bassa and Fula tribes were discussing the deadly Ebola Virus disease (Ebola, for short in this article) outbreak in the country. Their discussion, humorous in nature, was focused on how the disease is contracted, prevented, and how to handle people suspected to be having the virus to avoid spread of the killer disease, among others.
The Media and Ebola Awareness
The brief production made the ride entertaining and educative (or edutaining). When the discussion had ended, everyone aboard the taxi had acquired some basic information on the prevention and fight against the world’s first ever deadliest epidemic that has claimed over 1,235 cumulative lives in Liberia alone and over 2,000 in West Africa, according to the Liberian Government and the World Health Organization. Even when the drama was no longer playing in the vehicle, discussions on the Ebola outbreak continued among occupants, as they applauded how the information was entertainingly crafted, loaded with all the necessary preventive and safety measures.
The account above is just one of the many ways the Liberian media is immeasurably contributing to the national fight against Ebola, even when there are direct and indirect attempts by the state, especially security officials, to silence the indispensable press. There are no radio and television stations, or newspapers—private or public, secular or religious—that have failed to join this fight. The electronic media have created special programs and host regular talk shows on Ebola, while the pages and columns of newspapers are dominated by Ebola-related stories. The online media is no exception, and this compels me to declare that the role of the media has been exceedingly great in this fight.
Breaking The News
Even before the Liberia Government, through health authorities, knew and began taking steps to restrain the virus when it first broke out in March 2014, it was the media that broke the news—that a strange disease has been discovered in neighboring Guinea and killing people. The media warned that the disease is reported to have no cure and might spread into Liberia if care was not employed. The local media was following what was happening in Guinea, lifting international stories from there, and making them to suit local consumption for the Liberian people.
While a befuddled health ministry was contradicting itself and hesitating to state whether the outbreak was Ebola (thereby confusing the very-hard-to-take-things-serious public) the media especially, the print, sustained its reports, publishing “nasty” pictures of Ebola victims from outbreaks in East Africa, where the virus is reported to have first started in 1976.
Politics with Ebola
At first, the media was criticized for exaggerating the outbreak and sensationalizing Ebola-related stories by publishing shocking pictures of victims from other countries. When the government got ready to confirm the outbreak in Lofa County, confused politicians (mostly opposition) and other segments of the disenchanted society described it as a ploy by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration to “magnetize” money from the international community because,they claimed, the government was broke after three successive years of budget shortfalls and rising cost of living. The debate went on, and Ebola was coming.
In the midst of the debate, media houses and practitioners, as required by the journalism profession, did not hesitate to research and arm themselves with key information about the outbreak and spread of Ebola, to inform the Liberian public—despite the contradictions and distractions from whoever and wherever.
Fearlessly Serving The State
Fast-forward, with the cumulative death rate now battling towards 1,500, the media has resisted continuous harassment gambits by state agencies and continued to fearlessly inform the Liberian people with the everyday happenings about the Ebola imbroglio—with many of the reports vexing the government where its blunders are uncovered. Government and security officials are seemingly angry when the media publish or air the people’s voices criticizing its ineffective policies on the Ebola war, when the media air and publish the shooting of peaceful citizens in the name of fighting Ebola.
Unfortunately for our government, the role of the media is not to please anyone person, institution or administration in any society, unless such media environment is characterized by praise singers or public relation officers, rather than professional journalists. Journalists are to report what they see happening, and their reports are in the greaterest interest of the general public and not a security chief or a president. Therefore, those in public service who do not want to be exposed for wrongdoing must do the right thing if they should not have the press, which is bent on exposing ills, as their enemy.
While the Liberian media remains committed to creating awareness and providing education on the Ebola epidemic, no public official should harbor any thought that journalists will not report on corruption, on the sale of the country’s remaining oil blocks in the midst of national crisis, on the violation of people’s rights, on the brutal and inhumane shooting of little Shaki Kamara down West Point, on the alleged misapplication of Ebola funds and reported sale of donated materials, and on the rejection of patients who have turned out for medication at health facilities. No, for doing so will be a stark betrayal of professional journalism and the public trust.
Serving In The Midst Of Attacks, Intimidation
I do agree that the media here is not free from problems. Of course, you can never find one anywhere in the world! I have traveled, I have seen, and I know. I do unambiguously understand that there are some professional lapses in our media, but these are not problems that would necessitate the level of attacks and harassment on the Liberian media in the recent years, and most unfortunately during this national and international Ebola disaster, when world is pulling together resources to fight the invisible killer disease that has engulfed,West Africa, one of the poorest regions of the globe.
In the last two years, and most severely the last six months, the Liberian media has faced one of the worst periods (if not the worst) of press freedom in the Sirleaf’s administration with repeated threats, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, flogging of journalists, and shutting down of media houses. “We are increasingly concerned about the rapid deterioration in fundamental freedoms in Liberia upon the action and or inaction of government actors. This runs contrary to the constitutional obligations to protect these rights,” the Press Union of Liberia recently stated in a protest letter to the Justice Ministry, calling for a reversed order of the situation. These attacks only confirm what the former head of the elite presidential bodyguard, Othello Warrick, disclosed to the media in 2012, when he warned: ‘we will come after you.’ He made the threatening statement on World Press Freedom Day, when he was invited as one of the speakers by the PUL. His invitation was intended to discuss and reduce the rising rift between the media and the security sector, but God used him to expose a deadly ploy that was being hatched against the media.
Glaring Evidence of attacks
Since then, there have been several actions by the state security in this direction. Let’s look at just few. On Thursday, August 14, 2014 heavily armed police, forcefully and illegally closed the National Chronicle Newspaper, and arrested several staff including News Editor Emmanuel Mensah and IT Officer Emmanuel Logan. They also manhandled Philibert S. Browne, Jr. Since then, the paper’s publisher Philipbert Browne, Sr. has been subjected to nearly daily questioning at the Liberia National Police Headquarters and has been prevented from traveling outside the country. Why? The paper published a story of an interim government being in the making in the United States. After the unconstitutional and despotic closure of the critical newspaper, more information, including a group calling itself “Better Liberia”, has emerged, confirming the very report. The paper remains closed under the canopy that the publisher is still being investigated.
“The Press Union sees these actions as a further expression of intolerance, an unwarranted attack on the free press and a failure by the government to utilize due process. We seriously believe this action strengthens the distrust between the government and the media, undermines the rule of law and lays to waste the fruitful collaboration that has existed between the media and the government,” the Union’s protest letter read.
As if the issue of Philipbert Brown was nothing to concern the government, on the evening of Friday, August 29, 2014, the Press Union of Liberia received a call from the Management of the Women Voices Newspaper that they were being invited to the Police. She was being called after her paper published a professionally and ethically balanced story about police corruption with respect to compensation in the fight against Ebola. The police was annoyed because the photo of Inspector General Chris Massaquoi was used. Whose picture should be used when the story focuses on the police as institutions? Of course, Chris! On America as a country it would be Obama! Liberia as a country, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!
At the police station, Ms. Hellen Nah was informed that she was under investigation for a newspaper story, which had alleged corruption in the police. Shockingly, the police demanded a mugshot and fingerprints. This was simply an invitation that had turned into an investigation, and now one sees aspects of criminal procedures being applied. “By all means, had this been a criminal matter, mugshots and fingerprints would have been seen as normal. But introducing these in a matter that is yet so civil, and being enforced under the threats of imprisonment is bad faith, harassment of a peaceful citizen, a further action to humiliate journalists and prevent them from the lawful discharge of their duties,” the PUL described the situation.
More evidence: on Monday, September 1, 2014, personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accompanied by Police Officers, moved at the premises of the FrontPage Africa Newspaper (which was shutdown and its publisher jailed in 2013) to enforce an action to stop the paper from using its generator on “environmental grounds”. Did you get that—environmental grounds??!! When the PUL tried to enquirer the action, the officers left. They would return on the evening of September 3, but this time with a folk-lift to remove the generator. The generator was eventually not moved due to community resistance. OK, the EPA might be right, but why would government officers get involved in enforcing an action in the absence of due process of law? This takes away from the greater responsibilities that they have to do, given the current circumstances in our country. Again, this is a form of harassment on the paper. There are other instances of recent including the jailing of journalist Octavin Williams for driving a vehicle with foreign license plate—a common act in Liberia, the bloody flogging journalist Papie Sheriff Kollie by police officers in February and many, many more.
Historic Curfew For Journalists
What even shocked not only the media landscape but also the public and civil society actors was the imposition of curfew with no exempt for journalists. This has gone down as history, and in the legal sector lawyers would call it precedent law.
When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on August 19, 2014, announced the imposition of a 9-hour curfew, effective as of August 20, 2014, early on August 20 the PUL engaged the government about the curfew, indicating the necessity to have a reprieve for journalists. Later that very day, an exemption list was issued, absolutely ignoring the media. The Union had to take further actions to get the exemption for journalists. Though we have now crossed that stage, on would want to wonder why should journalists be affected by curfew? My head is too small to comprehend that. During the regime of Charles Taylor, as brutal as his government was said to be (the same path now reportedly being threaded by the Sirleaf’s administration) journalists were never affected by curfew as long as they were identified. Curfews imposed by the Government of late President Samuel K. Doe, during which the current Liberian leader was imprisoned, journalists were free people. What’s about the ECOWAS peace keeping group of the 1990s? Curfew imposed by them exempted journalists, but the Sirleaf administration had to intimidate journalists with curfew—I mean journalists who work 24/7, creating awareness and providing information when government officials are deeply snoring in their comfy beds acquired through taxpayer’s monies.
Like the PUL said in its protest letter to the Justice Ministry, “The truth is – no journalist or anyone for that matter would want to be outdoors, when all of their associates are indoors. Our insistence upon a curfew exemption was not as a matter of having an undeserved privilege, but rather to ensure that the work of gathering and disseminating news and information is not obstructed at any point. You will agree with us that any disruption of the free flow of news and information, whether anticipated or not, will project a scenario of doom and accelerate falsehood, which does not make the crisis any easier.” That’s it! Day and night the media needs to give the people and the government itself voices and spaces on air, on TV screens and on the pages of newspapers to express themselves and be heard. How dare would government want to stop this flow of information through the imposition of an inconsequential curfew! Can curfew fight Ebola? It’s a resounding NO. Rather, continuous education and public awareness by the media can unquestionably do. It is not the curfew that has brought a change of attitude among the people to wash their hands and stop touching the sick and the dead. It is the constant awareness and messages tailored through the media by whosoever, including the very government and its officials. Yes, the media!
Help Us or Leave Us
Folks, I could go no naming and listing the numerous attacks on the media including threatening text messages and anonymous calls on my personal number, because I speak for the media. These threats are from cowards and cannot scare me. I am prepared to take more or face tough police questioning or brutality foreven this article—maybe my life as well.
These attempts to silence the Liberian media are compounded by the government’s failure, if not refusal, to settle huge debts to media houses for services rendered in the last two years and beyond. This is complete cruelty. This is economic strangulation, and by extension censoring, suffocating and killing of the press. This undermines press freedom and democracy.
More than ever before, the media needs all the support—financial and other resources—to sustain the fight against Ebola, as it has done. Radio and TV stations need to spend longer hours of broadcasting and to run extensive programs and talk shows on the Ebola response. They need to provide more spaces for the government and health officials to provide more and clearer information on the prevention of Ebola. All these require financial resources, but the government is snail-pacing to settle the media bills. How can we fight together?
The newspapers must keep their pages fill with more awareness and short messages about the Ebola outbreak. To do so, they must pay production costs, procure newsprint, pay rents and government taxes; pay staff and run power generators since the Liberia Electricity Corporation is a nauseating disappointment. They need money to pay their staff to go the extra mile in a country where there is a state of emergency and ever-rising prices. It doesn’t require rock but money. Pay the bills!
Government must understand that running a newspaper or a radio station is not as easy as anything. Even the government which has all of the state resources has, through the Ministry of Information, failed to run the New Liberia Newspaper, despite budgetary allocations. State radio ELBC, which also receive 40% government support, has faced several shutdowns in the recent past for lack of fuel. What more about private media institutions that have to exclusively depend on and scramble for meager advertisements to survive. Failing to pay these bills to enable these media entities operate—provide information on Ebola to the public—is a cleaver way of undermining the very war against Ebola. When these newspapers fail to run like the government-own “snoring giant” New Liberia Newspaper, or these radio stations shut down like ELBC does at times, Information Minister Lewis G. Brown and our health officials, or President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would not speak to the nation.
Since the fight against Ebola started, the government has never recognized the critical role of the media; otherwise, it will not act the way it is behaving—announcing and taking ill-fated decisions that undermine the sacred and cherished work of the media. If the government cannot empower the media to keep informing the Liberian people (fascinatingly, no democratic the government can ever do without the media), if the government cannot settle the media bills, if the government doesn’t know the importance of the media, the wisest thing to do is to leave them alone rather than to make matter worse for the 135 media houses in the country.
The media has vowed to remain steadfast in the fight against the invisible virus and will not stop serving the nation and people, even in the midst of harassment and intimidation. Yes, the Struggle for Freedom of Speech And Press Freedom Remains, And Our Mighty Pens Shall Reign Over Their Repressive Guns.
The author is a renowned Liberian journalist, a UN media Fellow and award winner, media activist, with 14 years of practicing experience. He’s currently Secretary General of the Press union of Liberia, a free lance journalist and blogger. He can be reached at +231 (0886/0777)586531; email@example.com