Did INQUIRER’s Reporter Err In The Reportage Of Global Communities “Tightlipped” Story?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

In keeping with one of the ethical requirements in journalism known as “RIGHT TO REPLY,” this paper last week published a response from Global Communities (GC) in reaction to a story published by this newspaper in relation to an investigation of institutions that received funds to fight Ebola. “The right to reply” does not mean that all that is said in such a response is right, but that the person should be given the opportunity to respond.

In the story responded to by the organization, it was reported that when the reporters went to contact the organization about the use of the Ebola funds; unfortunately, the communication officer of the entity refused to talk to this paper and others as it relates to how the Ebola funds was being used, and did not even make any reference to be contacted for information on the matter after being contacted by the reporter.

As it is required, whenever a media institution decides to publish a story, it is necessary to always contact those who are in authority to get some needed information, especially so when there is a need to do some to have authoritative information, as in the case of those who received funds to fight the spread of the disease. This has been necessitated by suspicions that some of those who received money for this cannot account for them. The same goes to vehicles donated in this regard.

It was against this backdrop that journalists, including Antoinette Sendolo of this paper decided as a team to investigate, not with any preconceived mind of any wrongdoing, but to objectively inform the public of how some of these organizations, including Global Communities expended the funds. It was for this, that she and others decided to contact the communication person of the organization for comment, something that was more appropriate in information gathering involving an entity with communication or information persons.

Unfortunately, the desire of the journalists to get a comment from the organization about its usage of funds did not materialize. As stated earlier, we did publish the response of the organization and is repeated today because the information needed was provided by its Country Director, Warner Passanisi, who I personally admire for the level of civility and maturity employed in its response to this paper. Has it been others, they would have resorted to all kinds of unpleasant language or derogatory comments, thus evading the issue.

Notwithstanding, I wish to deal with two issues raised by the Country Director relating to the person to contact on such a matter. As I said, the reporters did not err by contacting the communication person who has the responsibility to comment or refer the journalists to the proper person to comment. The other issue is comments made, which were agreed upon would not form part of the interview, but were published.

In his communication, the Country Director points out, Furthermore, the individuals quoted in the article are communications and field program implementation staff who do not oversee overall program finances. Mr. Farshing, Ms. George and Ms. Toe were unable to respond to financial questions as they were not responsible for tracking this information. The author of the piece, Ms. Antoinette Sendolo, did not contact me or our finance staff who would have been happy to answer her questions. Additionally, Ms. Sendolo assured Mr. Farshing that his quotes were “off the record” and still, she published them without his knowledge or permission.

For this, I professionally beg to differ with the Country Director because in such a situation, the right person to have been contacted was the communication or information person, who, if not in the position to respond, would have advised the person to contact. It would be breach of professional chain of command by “jumping” to the financial person, without first contacting the person in charge of interacting with the media or directing the media to person to contact on such a matter. This is the normal routing that a media person must follow or pursue when seeking information from an organization, like Global community, with a communication or information person.

Again, the reporter could not just walk to the director’s office or the office of finance staff to get the information, without first contacting those responsible to do so or make reference to the one who is authorized to do so, as the reporter is not au courant with the modus operandi of that entity. Perhaps, in such a situation, “an appointment” could be made for the reporter to return, but to continue to refuse to comment, there was no alternative but to honestly state that the organization was “tightlipped’ on the funds issue, something that did not accuse it of any wrongdoing, but to ensure that it comments, which has now been done. For this, the reporter did not err.

Let it be known that the media has a duty to ensure in a more mature and professional manner that those who refused to comment on an issue when contacted, can be made to do so, without the media resorting to unprofessional or unethical acts.

Regarding the issue of “off-the-record,” not being respected by our reporter, this too, is not true, as the interviewee was aware or told that the interview would be published. Perhaps, the interviewee changed tongue because of fear of action by management on grounds that the interviewee was not the proper authority to make such comments to journalists.

For the sake of information, it can be recalled that it was during the IREX accountability reporting training which was held at the YWCA of Liberia that the team of journalists interacted with Global Communities’ Communication officer, Stephen Farshing. Mr. Farshing was aware that his interaction with the reporters was to be published and so he was not taken by surprise when this paper published the story.

According to our reporter, during the discussion with Mr. Farshing, he explained some of Global Communities’ activities before the outbreak of the Ebola virus and the institution’s involvement with the Ebola fight. As published in the article that the institution responded to, Stephen Farshing, who is the Communication officer could not provide information on how much was used from the over 32million USD that they received to help in the Ebola fight and also did not direct the team to someone who could provide the needed information.

Following the interaction with Farshing where he talked about GC border surveillance program, the IREX&LMC situation room reporters organized a visit to Cape Mount County in collaboration with GC to follow up on their border surveillance program in that part of the country. Since the Communication officer could not provide the needed information, the reporters then decided to ask the supervisor of the Border Surveillance Program, Laretta George on how much they have so far used for the program (like cost of each Triage) but she too could not give the exact amount on grounds that she was not the expert.

Upon the reporters’ return from Grand Cape Mount, they made a follow up via telephone calls and email in order to get the information from the authorities of Global Communities but there was no response. This process started early August when the team of journalists first interacted with the Communication Officer of Global Communities, Mr. Stephen Farshing and the story was published on September 22 2015. By reading this, one would appreciate the time given to speak on thus matter, as those who received Ebola funds, materials, including vehicles MUST account for them.

Once more, we are not pointing accusing fingers at anyone or group, but just trying to inform the Liberian people and donors how funds and materials given were used.

I Rest My Case.

NB: AttyWesseh is part time instructor of Mass Communication at the United Methodist University (UMU) In Monrovia.