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

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

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