Press Freedom Looks Like a Casualty of Liberia’s Response to COVID-19

By Clair MacDougall |

Liberian journalists during the inauguration of then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Liberian journalists during the inauguration of then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Monrovia, Liberia, Jan. 26, 2012 (photo courtesy of Clair MacDougall).

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—Liberia is preparing to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since April to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as President George Weah declared that the outbreak had been sufficiently contained. But the pandemic has raised troubling questions about freedom of the press in the country, with senior members of Weah’s administration publicly threatening journalists at its onset.

“Press freedom in Liberia has taken a nosedive,” James Harding Giahyue, a Liberian journalist and former colleague who reports for both local and domestic media, told me recently.

In April, Liberia’s solicitor general, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, threatened to use his expanded powers under the state of emergency to shut down and seize the equipment of media outlets that reported “fake news” about the coronavirus, though he did not cite any examples of misinformation. The deputy information minister, Eugene Fahngon, also provoked an outcry among journalists when he required that they be issued special press passes to cover the pandemic, rather than using their regular credentials. Another senior official, Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, said on a radio show that journalists would be “embarrassed” at checkpoints if they did not comply with Fahngon’s orders.

Liberia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 16. Three weeks later, Weah declared a state of emergency, much like his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, did during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which claimed at least 4,800 lives in Liberia. Weah deployed military and police officers to enforce a 3 p.m. curfew and restricted travel between the nation’s 15 counties. Schools and non-essential businesses were closed, and Liberians were instructed to only leave their homes for health care and food. As of June 10, the country has had 410 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 31 deaths, according to the National Public Health Institute of Liberia.

Jonathan Rozen, a senior Africa program researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists, who has been documenting press freedom issues in Liberia and elsewhere on the continent for the past three years, became particularly concerned at the mention of “fake news,” a term that has been widely used to disparage the media after being popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump. “Across the continent, we have seen COVID-19 in general be used as a pretext to crack down on reporters,” Rozen said in an interview with WPR.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, cases of journalists being arrested and harassed have appeared to increase throughout West Africa, as well as other parts of the continent. In Sierra Leone, a journalist claimed he was attacked by 10 soldiers after he photographed a COVID-19 quarantine center. In Nigeria, where harassment of the press is becoming more and more frequent, a journalist was charged and detained under the 2015 Cybercrime Act for publishing a report on the alleged collapse of a COVID-19 isolation center.

While no journalist has been arrested or jailed in Liberia for reporting “fake news” or writing stories that are unfavorable to the government, the country’s press has faced other obstacles. Reporters say they have been violently attacked by presidential security forces, and government officials have sued media outlets and made aggressive public statements toward the press. All of this has raised concern among civil society groups and international watchdogs like CPJ that Liberia’s press freedoms, which have been under threat to varying degrees since the end of a civil war in 2003, could be in further jeopardy.

The references to “fake news,” as well as Weah’s use of the term “enemies of the country,” are “straight from Trump’s playbook,” said Wade Williams, a Liberian journalist.

Despite initially affirming his commitment to freedom of the press after winning the 2017 election, Weah has made contentious comments about the media throughout his tenure. Months after taking office, in 2018, Weah lashed out at veteran Liberian reporter Jonathan Pay-Layleh at a joint press conference with the U.N.’s deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, at Liberia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Pay-Layleh posed a question about Weah’s proposed action on prosecutions for crimes committed during the Liberian civil war, to which Weah inexplicably responded: “When I was advocating for human rights in the country, you were one person that was against me.” Weah has also described those who criticized his lobbying for loans for infrastructure and roads as “enemies of the country.”

Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also had a checkered relationship with the press. Her government ordered the shutdown of radio stations during the 2011 election, which she went on to win, securing a second term in office. During the worst of the Ebola crisis in 2014, security forces stormed and shut down the National Chronicle newspaper, vaguely citing “national security.” It is still shuttered today. And in 2013, the investigative journalist and editor of the FrontPage Africa newspaper, Rodney Sieh, was sentenced to an absurd 5,000 years in prison for not paying damages related to a libel conviction. After four months in and out of prison, Sirleaf ordered his release.

Some Liberian journalists and activists say that while Sirleaf undermined freedom of the press from behind the scenes, senior members of Weah’s government have been much more direct in their public attacks. Human rights lawyer Kofi Woods, who represented Sieh during his libel case and has worked on other high-profile freedom of speech cases, told me he doesn’t like to compare administrations because “each has its own challenges.” But he said that the Weah administration’s “high-level public statements threatening the media” were cause for concern.

The attacks are not just verbal. Since Weah took office, multiple journalists have reportedly been assaulted by members of the Executive Protection Service, which provides security for the president and other senior government officials. In January, a broadcast journalist named Zenu Koboi Miller died two weeks after being beaten by Weah’s bodyguards, according to CPJ. After being petitioned by the Press Union of Liberia earlier this year to look into abuses committed by security forces against the press, Weah formed a five-person investigative committee in March, but two members have since resigned citing lack of progress and failures of the committee to meet.

Wade Williams, a fellow journalist from Liberia who lives in the U.S., told me that the solicitor general’s references to “fake news,” as well as Weah’s use of the term “enemies of the country” to describe his critics, are “straight from Trump’s playbook.” “Sirleaf went as far as shutting down media houses,” Williams said, “but the way this administration is approaching freedom of expression is dangerous.” She added that, at least under Sirleaf, “you could write without being afraid of being brutalized.”

Thanks to its teams of skilled health experts, who have recent experience ending one of the worst Ebola outbreaks in history, Liberia appears to be keeping COVID-19 numbers down. But human rights advocates say that the many reports of police abuses and beatings during the state of emergency threaten to tarnish that record. And for many Liberian activists, the Weah administration’s aggressive stance toward the media reflects a broader disdain for the rule of law and an unwillingness to be held to account for its actions.

“It’s time for the media, for human rights advocates and lawyers to come together, [with] civil society organizations, political and religious leaders,” Woods said. “We want a free and democratic society based on respect for the rule of law and human rights.”

Clair MacDougall is a journalist and writer who is currently covering the ongoing security crisis in the Sahel region. She covered the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and is a fellow at the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Source: World Politics Review

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