Report from the Senate Committee on Information, Broadcasting, Culture & Tourism meeting with the Leadership of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and Deputy Minister Eugene Fahngon
In line with Article 15 of the 1986 constitution of the Republic of Liberia, consistent with the Senate’s oversight responsibility, the Senate’s Committee on Information, Broadcasting, Culture & Tourism intervened in the stand-off between Honorable Eugene L. Fahngon, Deputy Minister of Public Affairs, Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs & Tourism, and the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) regarding change of Access Passes for Journalists and Media Institutions.
The news of confusion between Minister Fahngon and the PUL took center stages on almost all the media platforms. Such misunderstanding has the propensity of distracting us (the Leadership of this country) from the fight against the deadly Coronavirus or COVID-19. In the wisdom of the committee, it was appropriate to take seize of the matter and find ways to remedy the situation. There were separate meetings held with the leadership of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) and Hon. Eugene Fahngon.
PROCEEDINGS (Meeting with PUL)
The Chairman of the Committee on Information, Broadcasting, Culture & Tourism, Hon. Dr. Henrique F. Tokpa of Bong County, called the meeting to order, followed by self-introduction by members of the committee and executives of the PUL. The chairman of the Committee also presented excuses on behalf of his colleagues who were in their respective Counties helping with the fight against COVID-19.
The Chairman welcomed Executives of the Press Union of Liberia, and stated the importance of the meeting. He said the meeting was aimed at discussing and understanding what is going on with the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs & Tourism, and the Press Union of Liberia. The committee also intends to find a way to remedy the situation. Senator Tokpa told the PUL Officials that the Senate places emphasis on Press freedom and the cooperation between journalists, media institutions and the government of Liberia.
The chairman gave Mr. Charles Coffey, President of the Press Union of Liberia the opportunity to present from the perspectives of the PUL, what are the issues with changing the Access Passes; where is it coming from? And what is the PUL’s position?
Mr. Coffey started by appreciating the Senate for the wisdom to arrest the misunderstanding between Deputy Minister Fahngon and the PUL. He encouraged the Senate to do more for the good of the public. Mr. Coffey highlighted the problems and outlined the position of the PUL as stated below;
- That Mr. Fahngon is in the business of restricting the press, harassing and molesting journalists in order to force them to self-censorship;
a. He is selecting media institutions that are in favor of the Executive thereby denying critical voices, by the introduction of new passes, which is intended to get at certain people in the media; the PUL President lamented;
b. Coffey went on to explain that Journalists have been beaten by security officers even with the introduction of the Fahngon’s passes;
c. Coffey further alleged that the Solicitor General of Liberia, Seyma Syrenius Cephus, and deputy Minister Fahngon have promised to force the media in self-censorship;
d. The PUL President told the committee that Deputy Minister Fahngon has accused the Press Union of duplicating the media passes to give them to truck drivers, family members, girlfriends, etc.
PUL Position Mr. Coffey and other executives of the PUL accused the Deputy Minister of being a problem in the media landscape and noted as long as he remains at MICAT, the Press Union will continue with its non-cooperative posture. “The PUL will not use any pass because of Fahngon and the MICAT. The press should not be restricted because Coronavirus is a global pandemic. Journalists will use their institutional identification Cards or the PUL identification cards rather than using any Press Pass from Deputy Minister Fahngon”, Mr. Coffey and other executives of the PUL told the committee.
PROCEEDINGS (with Deputy Minister Fahngon)
During the meeting with Deputy Minister Fahngon, the Chairman welcomed the Deputy Minister and informed him that the Senate has been following recent developments in the media with news of change of passes, censorship of the media, etc. He informed Minister Fahngon that the meeting was intended to understand the issues from the Minister’s perspectives and what can be done to remedy the situation.
The chairman gave Mr. Fahngon the opportunity to present the issues from his perspectives. The Minister presented a copy of President George M. Weah’s Address to the Nation on the “Current Status of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Liberia on 8 April 2020” as his reliance. Mr. Fahngon highlighted the portion of the Address that talks about “All non-essential businesses and Government offices will remain closed, with the exception of essential businesses, health facilities and a few key government offices, such as the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Central Bank of Liberia, the National Port Authority, the Liberia Revenue Authority, the Monrovia City Corporation, and the Liberia Broadcasting System, accredited media institutions, where only a skeleton staff will be given passes to work”. Mr. Fahngon clarified that he is not at war with the PUL as it is being speculated in their corners, and he does not have any time for what they are doing; noting that he is just doing his work. He quoted the President’s statement as saying, accredited media institutions, where only a skeleton staff will be given passes to work. He said the real issue is, Mr. Coffey wants all media institutions opened and all journalists allowed on the streets; adding that He (Coffey) does not want any control mechanism.
He told the committee that he initially decided that Mr. Coffey would take delivery of the passes and distribute them to media institutions but, for transparency, the PUL President suggested we sit together to do the distribution, which all Journalists will sign for the passes before us (Coffey and me), we did that successfully for the first day. The Current went off; we were to continue the distribution of the passes the next day but to my utmost surprise, I called Mr. Coffey the whole day, just to be told that he has completed the distribution of the passes.
After Coffey’s information that he had distributed the passes, we saw the passes (Media Passes) on trucks, organizations (NGOs), for example, Street Child had twenty (20) passes. “There were mass production of the passes by Coffey to the point that Kelvin Deemie of Prime FM called me to find out why his sports reporter was carrying a pass when we do not have any sports activities going on”, the Deputy Information Minister alleged.
This, according to Mr. Fahngon is unacceptable; and that something must be done about it. He said that was how they made the decision to change the old passes to new ones with security features; and as it is now; all the big media institutions have received their new passes.
PROCEEDING (Phone Conversation with Hon. Lenn Eugene Nagbe, MICAT)
Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe through a telephone conversation with the Chairman of the committee expressed his intentions to have the conflict resolved by working with the PUL. The Minister said further, he has no intention to limit the Press from doing its work, but as the President of Liberia has expressed in the SoE the idea of not every journalist will have access to everywhere especially restricted areas where the disease is not present is of concern.
The committee considered the below as key findings that ignited the conflict between the PUL and Deputy Minister Eugene L. Fahngon:
a. There was a power play and the over-use of influence by Deputy Minister Fahngon. For example, the unilateral decision on the part of Mr. Fahngon to change Press passes without the involvement of the leadership of the PUL;
b. Lack of trust from both parties. Minister is accusing Mr. Coffey of mass production of passes for all media houses and journalists, while the PUL is as well accusing Mr. Fahngon of his unilateral decision to change the passes;
c. Lack of collaboration, coordination, and corporation between the department of Public Affairs at the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs & Tourism and the Press Union of Liberia;
d. The Minister of Information, Broadcasting, Culture Affairs & Tourism Mr. Lenn Eugene Nagbe, through all this is not taking leadership in solving the misunderstanding or the perceived misunderstanding between the Media and Deputy Minister Fahngon, which is absolutely important for the fight against the Coronavirus or COVID-19.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The media is very important in the fight against COVID-19, and so, restricting media coverage or media practitioners will not be called for. The media is the watchdog of society; we must encourage its involvement in the fight against this virus (COVID-19). Journalists should be allowed to use their intuitional identification Cards or the PUL’s official identification cards in the discharge of their reportorial duties consistent with international media protocols in the fight against COVID-19.
We are not in armed conflict; we are fighting a deadly disease that requires the involvement of all. It is not appropriate and reasonable that we have any distraction if we will succeed in the fight against COVID-19.
The President of Liberia expressed in the SoE that accreditation should be given a few journalists, thus denying access to majority of Journalists in Liberia. This in our opinion restricts access to information and press freedom, bordering on contravening the actual intent of Article 15 of the 1986 constitution of Liberia regarding press freedom. As such, the President of Liberia should reconsider his position and allow total access to Journalists in the Country to cover the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee on Information, Broadcasting, Culture & Tourism after a careful review of the situation consistent with our findings, the committee is pleased to recommend the following;
a. That the media/Journalists be left alone to use their institutional identification cards or the PUL’s identification cards. The change of passes now will undermine the fight against the coronavirus;
b. That the principal Minister of MICAT, Mr. Lenn Eugene Nagbe, to organize and facilitate a meeting with media executives intended to promote harmony between the Government of Liberia and the PUL. The current rift is not expedient for the Country’s image regarding Press Freedom, censorship and access to information;
c. That Deputy Minister Fahngon should avoid using force and inappropriate words on the press and on the President of the PUL, Mr. Charles Coffey. For example, “the PUL will operate in Mr. Coffey’s Country not President George Manneh Weah’s Country and that Mr. Coffey is a coward”. Statement of these can easily be interpreted as censorship of the media;
d. That the president relaxes his recommendation of selected journalists covering the State of Emergency (SoE). This can also be seen as censorship of the media.
DONE IN COMMITTEE ROOM ON THE 11TH DAY OF MAY 2020
Senator J. Milton Teahjay MEMBER
Senator Oscar A. Cooper MEMBER