Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the Liberian solicitor general's threats to shut down media outlets that spread "fake news" during a state of emergency to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.The execution of such vaguely-worded threats could result in unwarranted and disproportionate curbs on the freedom to inform, RSF warned.
At a press conference on 29 April, solicitor general Sayma Syrenius Cephas threatened to seize the equipment and revoke the licenses of media outlets publishing or broadcasting "fake news." Individuals spreading lies on social media, including Facebook, would also be hunted down and prosecuted during the state of emergency, he said.
"There will be no more warning," he added, threatening to confiscate equipment and shut media "until the end of the pandemic." Cephas also claimed that the state of emergency declared under article 87 of the constitution curtailed basic rights including the right to free speech and freedom of assembly.
"A public health crisis does not justify any restriction on the right to information," said Assane Diagne, the director of RSF's West Africa office. "On the contrary, combating an epidemic requires providing the public with accurate and extensive information. Vague threats about 'fake news' are also worrying. Who decides what is and what is not 'fake news'? The need to combat disinformation must not be used as a pretext for persecuting journalists and censoring media outlets that annoy the authorities."
The solicitor general issued these threats after it was rumoured that President George Weah had tested positive to Covid-19. The rumours went viral on Facebook a few days after several senior officials reportedly tested positive. They included the information and justice ministers, who had recently been in close contact with President Weah. Liberia is ranked 95th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.