Ebola crisis being used to attack media freedom: Campaigners

From the closure of a newspaper to arrests and harrassment of journalists, rights groups and the media say Liberia`s fight against Ebola is being accompanied by an alarming assault on press freedom.

Monrovia: From the closure of a newspaper to arrests and harrassment of journalists, rights groups and the media say Liberia`s fight against Ebola is being accompanied by an alarming assault on press freedom.

The criticism comes with Human Rights Watch urging the worst-hit countries, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, to ensure respect for human rights and transparency in their struggle to halt the epidemic.

"At this time when we have huge outbreak of the Ebola epidemic, we think the government and the people must be working together to find the solution," said Abdullai Kamara, president of the Press Union of Liberia. 

"Unfortunately the media has become the unsuspecting victim of government actions in the wake of this." 

Kamara said the state of emergency announced on August 6 was wrongly being used as an "alibi to clamp down on media rights". 

Earlier this month, the union wrote to Justice Minister Christiana Tah, voicing alarm over recent "violations" of press freedom.

It protested against the enforced closure of the daily National Chronicle and the interrogation and fingerprinting of the editor of Women Voices newspaper over an article on alleged corruption among police officers responsible for Ebola prevention.

It also complained about a police search of the premises of the investigative FrontPage Africa newspaper. 

The letter voiced frustration that journalists had not been made exempt from a night-time curfew in effect since August 20, effectively preventing them from reporting on the crisis."The government has actually failed when it comes to Ebola fight," said National Chronicle managing editor, Philibert Browne. 

"When the Ebola fight started... and the alarm was raised, there was nothing actually done to come out and fight the disease."

The paper was closed on August 14 after reporting on a campaign by Liberians living in the United States to replace the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with an interim government.

"Now that the disease has gone extremely out of control, and it has reached a very difficult and crucial stage in containing it, the government is looking at media houses that they feel are critical," Browne told AFP.

"They are making sure they clamp down on those institutions and have them closed. Whatsoever is happening in the country with the media is premeditated."

The Chronicle, accused of "endangering state security", had been warned by government officials to exercise restraint in its reporting, say Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"As Liberia struggles to contain the health crisis, the government should show tolerance, and partner with the media to encourage the flow of information and debate," the CPJ said in a statement. 

RWB assistant research director Virginie Dangles warned against using Ebola as a pretext for a media crackdown. 

"On the contrary, the media need to be involved as much as possible, to provide the population with constant information about the state of the epidemic, the government`s response and the preventive measures being adopted," she said.

Human Rights Watch said the response to Ebola had been "hampered by lack of knowledge about the disease, fear, denial, and a deep-rooted mistrust of government".

Kamara`s Press Union of Liberia was invited to discuss its concerns with Sirleaf last week. 

During the meeting, the head-of-state "urged the media not to heighten the fears of Liberians and the international community by their reporting; adding that, it hurts the country and the ongoing fight", said a statement from the presidency.

She agreed to a request by the union that community radio stations be "supported to enable them play their role during this critical health crisis" but added that the issue of the National Chronicle "is before the courts and will be resolved within that context". 

"The people who are managing this government have been in the core of democracy for years, so it becomes disappointing when human rights, including freedom of expression, are abused during this regime," Kamara told AFP. ​