Intellectual Point of Departure:
There is a need for a greater collaboration between the managers of government’s information at the Ministry of Information (MoI) and the independent press if the Liberian media outlets have to be fogged with persuasive health protocol messages associated with COVID-19. This demands a critical role of the press as a vehicle through which messages are echoed.
Twenty years ago, in 2000,Raymond Louw, Former Editor of the South African Rand Daily Mail from 1966-1977and Editor and Publisher of the Southern Africa Report, describes what a free press means to him in these lines: “Without a free Press there is no freedom for the individual—no protection against dictatorship, mind erosion and attack on one’s person, thoughts and beliefs; no protection for one’s wife and children, home and way of life; no protection against abuse of power, administrative excesses and corruption; no protection against injustice, false testimony and mistrial.”
While the global population was still in the celebrative mood of Word Press Freedom Day, Deputy Information Minister Eugene Fahngon, on the one hand and the Press Union of Liberia began pulling the strains at the extreme unnecessarily over pass reintroduction at this time when the deadly threat of COVID-19 should supplant all forms of national messaging. MoI, smartly stated, should be leveraging the platform of the independent media outlets rather than lavishing threats against the media whose work is not necessarily for MoI but the generality of the citizens and residents of Liberia and beyond Liberia’s borders. It must occur to the consciences of public information actors that the press and the government are in complimenting and not competing partnership which requires a program of cooperation.
In projecting government’s message to combat COVID-19, our information actors should be more focused on how partnerships can assist in this process. Anything short of this is a worthless national distraction when multiple public figures have sadly fallen victim to this pandemic. No matter our ideological or political differences, this is a public health threat that exposes us all as “soft targets” to COVID-19, regardless of titles.
The Contemporary Functions of the Press:
There is no contradiction in the statement that the press impacts the society both socially and politically. More importantly, I challenge any individual who can reference a homogenous society void of the press’ participation. When my beginning students of Communication are normally asked regarding the functions of the press, the normal responses are heard: to educate, entertain and inform. But the contemporary functions of the press far exceed these and like the students, it is important for those managing our national information to keep in tone with the elaborative functions of the press which, if taken advantage of, pays off in their favor. I don’t intend to subject anyone to pedagogical(academic) simplicity. I’m simply placing premium on the shifting roles of the press which should never be trashed by anyone in any given society. Let’s deal with each seriatim:
- The press acts as a community forum; an equivalent of a town hall meeting where people meet and discuss. You remember the phone in or live studio discussions with real people, right?
- The press informs the diverse audiences about what takes place in society and around the world. This is the information dissemination function of the press.
- The press keeps surveillance in the society on a litany of societal issues including governance, morality, corruption, etc. This is the watcher function of the press. No wonder why the press is metaphorically referenced- ‘watch dog of the society.’
- The press services the economic system. This is the marketing function of the press. You remember sales and advertisements being carried out by the press in the society.
- The press holds the society together as a cultural glue through the messages let out which are capable of either inflaming or unifying the society. This is the Press’ correlative function .
- The press services the political system. Where do the politicians run to market their platforms or ideologies? How do the electorates make informed decisions regarding the quality of officials to be elected for public offices? How do the electorates get to know the aspirants through public scrutiny? Obviously, it is the press.
- Changes in society have mostly been due to how the press transmits information to keep the people constantly informed about happenings in a society or all over the world. This is the educative or teaching function of the press that moves people to motivational actions.
- The press can function as a propaganda tool. Of course the press makes or breaks any individual or society. Lukas Luwarso, former Chairperson of the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia notes that “a free press is like a tornado that uproots the roots of corruption, collusion and nepotism….”(Voices of Freedom 2000, P.3). Under its propaganda function, the press is capable of carrying out what Keith Rupert Murdoch of fox New Channel calls “a patronage style of reporting.” The press decides who to promote and who to politically suffocate at any given period.
- The agenda setting role of the Press. The press increases the attitude of the public towards certain issues viewed as important and provide a strong message to the world about what is right or wrong regardless of geo-location. The key takeaway of the agenda setting role is that the headlines or opening discussions of the press trigger what people should think about.
Hints to MOI Specific to COVID-19:
The Americans say you work for your boss. Parallel to this assertion, the MoI remains the biggest “information boss” for whom all other media outlets serve as “satellite stations” to project national agenda. Collectively challenged by this COVID-19 threat, how, I wonder, has the MoI rebranded itself suitably in public health information dissemination at this time? Lest I forget, freelance copywriter and brand strategist, Pete Gall, says a brand is “ the story of people headed in a direction inviting you to journey with them.” Has the MoI, in the spirit of true partnership, invited the independent press to journey with it in this critical sojourn? In fact, Gall adds that in branding, all functions are expected to be on the same page, at least in terms of the message. Who loses or gains when the MoI and the independent press are subjecting each other to vague threats and counter threats while COVID-19 ‘asymmetrical assault’ rages on?
In good faith, how can the MoI address the following key concerns:
Vision: What is the vision of the MoI at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic? If any, how aspirational is the MoI’s messaging and how attainable is the message? Is the MoI’s message on the pathway of success void of the independent press’ involvement?
Messaging Strategy: What are the distinguishable, well defined attributes of the MoI’s messaging intended for the public at this time? Is the strategy, if any , inclusive of all media outlets which can be leveraged by the MoI? Is the strategy enhancing or inhibiting the message of COVID-19?
Information Vehicles: What outlets are being used by MoI as the vehicles to transmit the COVID-19 message? To what extent does the MoI use the independent press to propel the national population to summarily adapt and adjust to this new wave of challenge being forced upon them? Should the message of adhering to health protocols be the concern of the MoI in order to safe already threatened lives or issuing threats of closure and seizure of equipment or punishing members of the press(without new passes) who violate lockdown orders during their reportorial duties? Which of these attributes are most important to the MoI messaging segment and therefore requires being highlighted nationally and internationally? In fact, in terms of optimal mix messaging, who is the MoI’s brand personality capable of stimulating public interest in sticking to the COVID-19 health protocols? What is the public’s comfort level in this supposed brand personality?
If this may be my conclusions:
COVID-19 is real. Lives are painfully lost and more are threatened while individuals are undeservedly stigmatized. Suggestively, it’s about time the MoI exercises national information leadership role to avoid any form of national distractions in the collective COVID-19 messaging. But this assertion, can only be grounded in the words of Abraham Zaleznik as quoted by John Adair,(2005: P.26) that “leaders think about goals, they are active rather than reactive, shaping ideas rather than responding to them.” We have become what security strategists refer to as “targets of opportunity” for COVID-19. How to survive this snare should occupy our rational thoughts more than any other thing else. Stated briefly, those in charge of our national messaging must ensure that the press remains unfettered and that the partnership role of the press in the fight against COVID- 19 is not corrupted by threats of intimidation or closure.