While press coverage of the Ebola crisis in the US has been relentless, in Liberia the stakes are much higher. Brooke talks with Rodney Sieh, founder and editor of FrontPage Africa, an award-winning independent newspaper based in Monrovia, about covering a story that could cost you your life.
BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, Bob Garfield is out this week, I’m Brooke Gladstone. Here’s what happened Wednesday.
News Broadcast 1: Just days after receiving an experimental drug that hadn't been tested on humans, 42-year-old Thomas Eric Duncan lost his fight with Ebola.
News Broadcast 2: He was the first person to be diagnosed in the United States having travelled here from Liberia reportedly after having come in contacted with an infected pregnant woman.
News Broadcast 3: The CDC says it continues to monitor the 48 people who may have been in contact with Duncan while he was infectious.
BROOKE: Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national,was the first person diagnosed with the virus in the US. Here, coverage of his case was relentless, as international reporters throngeed Duncan’s residence and hospital, vying for information. The Dallas Morning News reported that police even heard rumors of journalists posing as pizza delivery guys and bribing residents to get into Duncan’s apartment building. But for Liberia’s local reporters, the stakes are much higher. Covering the country’s biggest story could, conceivably, kill you. Rodney Sieh is founder and editor of FrontPage Africa, based in the capital Monrovia, an independent newspaper known for its investigations of corruption and human rights violations. He says that when Ebola began to take hold earlier this year, many Liberians believed the disease wasn’t real.
SIEH: There were no images of Ebola people dying. And so a lot of people felt that maybe the government was making this thing up. There was even a law maker who made a remark to say that the Ebola epidemic is a scheme by the government to make money. It was very very difficult for people to believe it.
BROOKE: How did you challenge that thinking?
SIEH: Back in May, I called one of the assistant ministers of health and I told them and I said, "Look, you need to let us go on the front lines and take pictures of dead people, take pictures of burials so people can know that this thing actually exists". The minister agreed so my newsroom editor was the first who went on the scene of a burial incident and it became the first images of the crisis in our country.
BROOKE: You published an editorial in August titled "SOS From Liberia" in which you condemned the failures of the Liberian government you called on "every international humanitarian organization to please intervene in Liberia before Africa's oldest republic loses it's entire population". How did the government respond?
SIEH: The President actually called me on that editorial. And I told her I said, look there was not enough quarantine being done. There was not contact tracing being done. We had done a story about a guy, who took his friend who had symptoms of Ebola, on his back they walked about six, seven miles from West Point to the hospital in JFK Sinko he actually put the guy down in front of the hospital bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea and he left the guy there and went back to West Point. So that's why the numbers keep going up.
BROOKE: But you suggest the government isn't just mismanaging the thing, it's trying to obscure what's going on and make it hard for journalists to do their job. Why that?
SIEH: Too many negative stories are going out about the government. So they decide now who covers a health center. They decide now who goes to a burial. They decide now who goes to a hospital to interview the hospital doctor.
BROOKE: On Monday the Liberian press union issued a statement saying "the government has not only failed to implement domestic and international promises but is not undermining the free press and censoring the media and slipping into attitudes that led the country to more than 14 years of brutal civil war." Are you accusing the government of obsessing too much on the press and too little on the crisis itself?
SIEH: If you look at the issues at hand: Is the government doing enough to quarantine people so they don't spread the virus into other areas? Are they doing enough to provide protective gears for Ebola? They're not really addressing those issues. But they want to cut down free speech and right to walk freely. And right to assemble. The President submitted a bill to this legislature on October 1st asking them for these powers. She wants the Constitution suspended. In the midst of an Ebola crisis the government is actually concerned about restricting free speech. The irony is just crazy!
BROOKE: How are you focusing your coverage? What's your primary aim?
SIEH: Our aim is to make sure that we cover every aspect of this crisis. And one of the issues that's developing that's not getting a lot of coverage is the issue of the orphans. Mothers have died. Fathers have died. So the kids are left all alone by themselves. There was a little girl. This was one of the most painful stories of this crisis. She must be about a year old. The whole house died from Ebola, and she was in this house all by herself with her mother's corpse. She was sucking on the breast of her dead mother for almost five days until the burial team came and picked her up from there. That tells you the magnitude of this crisis.
BROOKE: Have any of you reporters been reluctant to cover this story?
SIEH: Obviously everyone is afraid of Ebola. But surprisingly our reporters have been very strong and brave in this crisis. There was a case last week, a community called Barnesville, one of the most infested area for Ebola in Liberia. They were mobilizing people in the area to go from door to door and do temperature testing on people and see who has symptoms of Ebola. So I called one of my reporters up. And this reporter didn't even hesitate. She followed the team from door-to-door, took pictures, interviewed people and did a very nice article that really hit the nerves of people around here.
BROOKE: Have any of your reporters gotten sick?
SIEH: No we have not, although we don't have the resources other people have. Our reporters can't afford to get protective gear. So we have to improvise at times. We've been very very careful.
BROOKE: How do you and your colleagues deal with the reality that the story you have to cover could cost you your life?
SIEH: That's the big challenge we face every day. We take those risks because getting the story out is very important. I mean you win, you lose, you live and your die. Something's got to kill us. We very careful. We're not saying we put our life on the line to die for nothing. We know that we doing something that in the long run will benefit the world. And we are at the forefront of this crisis. We need to let the world know what's happening in Liberia and we're going to risk our lives doing it.
BROOKE: Do you have any theories as to why Ebola became an epidemic in Liberia?
SIEH: The answer is very simple. Three things: quarantine, contact tracing, and lack of medical supplies. Nigeria, where a Liberian American took the virus to, managed to as of two weeks ago declare themselves Ebola-free. You know how they did that? They did that by quarantining, they did that by containing, they did that by contact tracing. In Senegal, one case came from neighboring Guinea. That person was quarantined, contact traced and nicked right away. In Liberia, we do not have that speed. That precision. And the CDC is saying that by January if we don't do the things that we're supposed to do, this virus will hit 1.4 million cases. So you can bring in the United Nations Security Council, you can bring in the United States Congress, you can bring in the US Defense Department in this territory, but as long as we don't have the quarantine measures in place, the containment measures in place, the contact tracing locked down, we're all going to die in this country.
BROOKE: Rodney, thank you very much.
SIEH: You're welcome.
BROOKE: Rodney Sieh is the founder and editor of Frontpage Africa an independent newspaper based in Monrovia, Liberia.