NEW YORK – Liberia is preventing journalists from reporting Ebola-related stories from health-care centers in the country and from interviewing Liberians in regions affected by the disease unless they obtain written permission from the government.
The news came as the World Health Organization issued a statement warning that the officially reported decline in new cases in Liberia over the past three weeks “is unlikely to be genuine,” because problems with data gathering continue.
The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Monrovia in collaboration with the Ministry of Information has imposed the new restrictions on Ebola coverage by local and international journalists, according to news reports in Liberia.
Bill K. Jarkloh, associate editor of the Analyst Newspaper in Liberia and a media trainer of the Liberian Media Center, asserted the policy violates the Liberian constitution.
He called on media to resist this “ugly restriction.”
“If the media, especially the Press Union of Liberia and its auxiliaries, buy this restriction from the government during this crucial time when the media must be [more] free than ever to monitor the performances of state actors including medical practitioners at Ebola centers, more draconian restrictions will follow,” he said.
Meanwhile, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. died Wednesday morning. Thomas Eric Duncan, 42, is believed to have contracted the virus in Liberia while taking an ill neighbor to the hospital. He flew to the U.S. Sept. 20 and had been at a Dallas hospital since Sept. 26.
WHO said in an Ebola situation report Wednesday the underreporting of Ebola cases in Liberia “reflects a deterioration in the ability of overwhelmed responders to record accurate epidemiological data.”
“It is clear from field reports and first responders that EVD cases are being underreported from several key locations, and laboratory data that have not yet been integrated into official estimates indicate an increase in the number of new cases in Liberia,” WHO said.
The U.N. agency stated there is “no evidence that the EVD epidemic in West Africa is being brought under control, though there is evidence of a decline in incidence in the districts of Lofa in Liberia, and Kailahun and Kenema in Sierra Leone.”
Last week, Tolbert G. Nyenswah, the assistant health minister for preventive services at the Ministry of Information and the head of the Ebola incident government management team, explained the new policy at a press conference. The rules, he said, forbid health-care workers in Liberia from giving out any information to local or international journalists without specific approval from the Ministry of Information.
Nyenswah said the media restrictions applied to interviews on the property of health-care facilities as well as to interviews outside a health-care facility’s perimeter.
He said it was justified on the grounds of protecting the privacy of patients and health-care workers as well as the health and safety of journalists.
The government minister stressed that while Liberia supports the public awareness efforts by the media to stop the epidemic, the restrictions are necessary because of the extensive number of infections and the extremely contagious nature of the disease.
Writing in Front Page Africa, journalist Stephen D. Kollie summarized the new Liberian government media policy: “Journalists wanting to take photographs, or conduct interviews and video recordings at an Ebola health-care facility will now be required to secure written permission from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.”
The Analyst reported Jarkloh believes such restrictions provide no public benefit and only deprive people of knowledge of what is happening at the health centers, “especially in the face of speculation” about treatment for their loved ones.