It was an early August day, and the Daily Observer, said to be Liberia’s largest newspaper, had “breaking” news. The Monrovia-based paper reported that an unnamed man had tried to dump a bottle of formaldehyde into a nearby community’s water supply to induce “Ebola-like symptoms” that would “subsequently kill people.” The man, the newspaper wrote, told residents that there were many more “agents” like him in “communities around the country.”
“We are many,” the Observer quoted him saying.
“The Observer had previously been informed that people dressed as nurses were going into communities with ‘Ebola Vaccines,'” the newspaper continued. “Once injected, it reportedly produces Ebola-like symptoms and sends victims into a coma. Shortly thereafter, victims expire.” It added that residents had chased away these “vaccine peddlers” after their “formaldehyde-water mixtures” had killed 10 children. The report concluded: “Families suspect an organ trafficking operation is capitalizing on the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia.”
At a time when Liberian residents need reliable information to make decisions that could have global ramifications, the formaldehyde article, for which The Washington Post could find no corroboration elsewhere, is one of the most popular stories on the Daily Observer’s Web site. It is far from the only rumor-laden report in the Observer, which has become a feeding ground of phony conspiracy.
Recent articles published by the paper have speculated that the U.S. Defense Department “manufactured” the Ebola outbreak, have alleged that the United Nations “deliberately introduced” the Ebola virus, and have fretted over an impending influx of foreigners. “There are now many towns in Liberia that have ‘plenty’ of foreigners, good neither for our growth and development,” one piece opined.
In a testament to the power of rumor in a time of panic, the articles all perform markedly well traffic-wise. The top three news stories on the Web site all allege medical professionals have infected residents with Ebola, ideas that have drawn the conspiratorial from across the planet.
“My grandma told me stories like that,” one Liberian wrote on the site, commenting on the formaldehyde theories. “She said white doctors used to spray a yellow powder from the top of the mountain, and the next day the whole village will be sick.”
An American woman also seized on the news item. “I have seen evidence to suggest this epidemic is being manufactured,” she wrote in a comment that collected 33 likes. “CNN have posted videos that show people who are obviously acting…. This article just adds to that suspicion.”
Bai S.G. Best, the Daily Observer’s marketing manager, declined to comment on the stories. “There has only been one” conspiracy theory in the paper, the manager wrote in a message to The Washington Post. “Several? What are the others?” When a reporter sent him numerous Daily Observer links, he replied, “I’m afraid this conversation cannot be rushed…. This is a very delicate topic…. My question is this: Have you been to Liberia in the past 3 months?”
Taken as a whole, the editorial decisions pursued by the Daily Observer both reflect and perpetuate a pervasive fear in Liberia, sparking a national debate over press freedom.
Last week, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked for broader powers to control false media reports. “Because falsehood and negative reporting on the state of affairs is likely to defeat the national effort in the fight of the Ebola virus, it is important that such be discouraged and prevented,” she wrote in a letter to the national legislature. “The government of Liberia will restrict speeches that will confuse the citizens and residents including the raising of false alarm.”
The proposals, which the Liberian House of Representatives rejected, alarmed some outside observers. Mother Jones complained that “Liberia’s government is using Ebola to crack down on the media,” fitting it into a larger narrative of government press suppression.
The debate over Liberian press freedoms, however, isn’t necessarily so zero-sum. The government does have a history of coming down hard on journalists. Last year, authorities jailed prominent Liberian journalist Rodney Sieh, editor in chief of FrontPage Africa, after he refused to pay a $1.5 million civil libel judgment against him.
But there’s also precedent for the Liberian press acting irresponsibly. In 2012, four prominent Liberian newspapers published stories accusing a French diplomat of having sex with prostitutes and “sex slavery.” To illustrate the story, the papers used images of random school girls, who claimed they were tricked into posing for the photographs.
And at least when it comes to the Daily Observer, the taste for the outrageous remains untempered even during the Ebola outbreak, which has killed thousands in the country. In September, it published a letter from a U.S. professor named Cyril Broderick, who alleged that the Ebola outbreak was a result of Pentagon medical testing.
“Reports narrate stories of the US Department of Defense (DoD) funding Ebola trials on humans, trials which started just weeks before the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone,” Broderick wrote.
The Observer has now followed that report with another doozy, this one by Yoichi Shimatsu, a Thailand-based science writer. He charged that the United Nations conducted “vaccine campaigns” in rural Guinea at the time of the initial outbreak, which “strongly suggests that the virulent Zaire Ebola strain (ZEBOV) was deliberately introduced to test an antidote in secret trials on unsuspecting humans…. The release of Ebola may well have been an act of bio-warfare in the post-colonial struggle to control mineral-rich West Africa.”
The 3,000-word manifesto condemns Western aid agencies that “unleashed” the outbreak and are now “turning panic into profit” by seeking a vaccine. “The boundaries of every country in the region are now sealed by troops,” Shimatsu wrote. “And so the truth behind the epidemic will probably be buried with the victims.”
But not every reader bought the diatribe. “The ignorance on this site astounds me,” one resident of Monrovia wrote. “Just stop lining up for visas at the same country that you all claim want to kill you.”