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Press freedom muzzled in Ebola affected countries

West African journalists claim that their governments are trying to prevent independent reporting on the Ebola crisis. Governments on the other hand say that some journalists are breaching ethical standards.

West African journalist unions have reported that they are facing a worrying number of restrictions while covering the Ebola crisis. Governments in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are misusing the crisis to restrict journalistic freedoms, Christian Mihr from the German branch of Reporters without Borders (RSF) told DW.

Mihr says that the press is increasingly being muzzled in reporting on the flaws and difficulties in the crisis management. A recent RSF report lists a number of incidents from all three countries: In Guinea, for instance, authorities denied reporters access to investigate the death of eight health workers. In Liberia, several journalists were arrested and media houses shut down, after they reported on the alleged abuse of funds that were supposed to be used in the fight against Ebola. RSF also raised concerns over plans by Sierra Leone's government to enforce tougher press laws, which would especially affect journalists covering the Ebola crisis.

Press freedom is a universal right

Mihr believes that the restrictions are the panicked reactions of the crisis stricken states, rather than an actual strategy to muzzle the press. Yet he remains worried about the development. "Press freedom is one of the universal human rights, that also remains valid in a crisis. An independent press is also vital to report and inform about people about the epidemic," he adds.

An Ebola treatment center in Liberia.

Journalists have breached ethical standards, when reporting on Ebola, claims Liberian government.

Liberian authorities have restricted journalists' access to health facilities and quarantine zones. And while some of these restrictions are implemented to stop the spread of the virus, the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) is worried about the long term consequences. Journalists already faced difficulties in Liberia before onslaught of the crisis, said PUL president Abdullai Kamara. "With the coming of the Ebola crisis it has been getting worse," he told DW.

The union head commented that several journalists were arrested in past months, simply because they were reporting for a critical media house. Kamara also said that he was concerned about the government's attempt to push through new laws that would allow it to close critical media outlets or prosecute journalists reporting for these outlets. The government, he noted, also has plans to regulate on the accreditation of journalists.

Governments call for higher reporting standards

Liberia's Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs, Isaac Jackson, on the other hand had a different version of the story. The fight against Ebola poses various challenges, he told DW, including the collaboration with the press. The government, he added, has already improved its relationship with the journalists through daily press conferences. "The government has developed a policy that regulates the media practitioners covering the Ebola Treatment Units,“" Jackson admitted. This, he said, was necessary to guarantee the safety of the journalists and the public.

According to the deputy minister, reporters have in the past broken hospital etiquette, when entering Ebola wards. In some instances, Jackson said, journalists even entered isolation wards under the pretense that they were medical staff and then took photos of scantily dressed patients in order to sell these to international media agencies.

Jackson demanded that journalists should do more to adhere to their professional standards: "We hope that the Press Union of Liberia will put more emphasis on the ethics, the code of conduct, the professional standards regulating journalists. In many instances the emphasis is on their rights."

Both the Union head Kamara and Mihr form Reporters without Borders, have also called on journalists to stick to the ethical standards, which their line of work demands. Every profession has its culprits noted Kamara. This, he however argued, should not be used as an excuse by the government to promote its own agenda through the press.

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