A senior US State Department official, Tibor Nagy, has warned African governments including Liberia to avoid using the COVID 19 pandemic to suppress the media.
Mr. Nagy, who works as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Africa, said the Trump administration is concerned about some countries using the current pandemic to further constrain media freedoms, particularly in response to independent reporting relating to the crisis.
“A vibrant, free press is more important than ever to ensure the public receives timely and accurate information about the virus and how to stop its spread,” he said.
The US diplomat added that African governments’ reaction to the pandemic should focus on protecting public health and not using the outbreak as an excuse to suppress the media.
“Government transparency and accountability and freedom of expression, for members of the media, are critical for an effective response to COVID-19,” Nagy added.
Nagy’s statement came after Liberia’s Solicitor General Syrenius Cephus on April 29 threatened to close down media organizations and confiscate equipment for spreading ‘misinformation’.
“No more warning for media institutions, we will shut down and confiscate their equipment for spreading falsehood and misinformation,” Cephus said.
Adding to the woes, Deputy Information Minister Eugene Fahngon recent move to single-handedly replace media accreditation cards previously issued to journalists to move around freely during the pandemic has been rejected by the Press Union of Liberia.
Min. Fahngon move came despite an agreement between the Ministry of Information and the Press Union to allow journalists to freely perform their duties without let or hindrance during the lockdown.
According to Fahngon, the previous accreditation done in collaboration with the Press Union have been counterfeited by some individuals.
Following Fahngon’s outburst, the leadership of the Press Union of Liberia held a mass meeting with its membership at which time it resolved that its members would continue the use of their appropriate institutional credentials or ones issued by the Press Union.
In a statement issued following the assembly, the Union rejected the action of the government to restrict the movement of journalists is a straightforward attempt to undermine the role of the media in the war against the pandemic.
“The Union also sees the constraints being imposed by the government as running contrary to the warning of the United Nations Secretary-General in his statement marking this year’s World Press Freedom Day,” the statement read.
The Press Union further warned the government that it would be held responsible for any harm and intimidation suffered by journalists and media workers in the face of threats from the deputy information minister.