Monrovia (AFP) - Liberia said on Friday it was banning journalists from Ebola clinics, defying media rights campaigners who have warned panicked African governments against "muzzling" reporters.
Government spokesman Isaac Jackson made the announcement as he was questioned on a radio phone-in show about reporters being barred from covering a strike at a Monrovia Ebola treatment unit (ETU).
"Journalists are no longer allowed to enter ETUs. These journalists enter the ETUs and cross red lines," Jackson, the deputy information minister, told listeners to commercial station Sky FM.
"They violate people's privacy, take pictures that they will sell to international institutions. We are putting an end to that."
Journalists had earlier been denied access to the Island Clinic in Monrovia to cover a nationwide "go slow" day of action by healthcare workers demanding risk bonuses for treating Ebola.
The minister said he would insist that journalists report his statements from now on rather than what they saw for themselves.
Sources from global aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), which runs a unit of around 250 beds in Monrovia, said it would be writing to the government to ask to be excluded from the ban.
Liberia is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in the 2014 press freedom index produced by Reporters Without Borders.
- 'Quarantining journalists' -
The media rights campaign group warned that panicked governments fighting the epidemic were "quarantining" reporters to prevent them covering the crisis.
"Combatting the epidemic needs good media reporting but panicked governments are muzzling journalists," the organisation, known by its French initials RSF, said in a statement.
Liberia's announcement came after soldiers prevented the media in Guinea from investigating the murders in September of eight people, including three journalists, during an Ebola education visit.
In Liberia, medics have been banned from communicating directly with the media, RSF said, while Sierra Leone has threatened to adopt draconian measures against journalists criticising its Ebola response.
The Island Clinic, Liberia's largest government Ebola treatment centre, is run by the World Health Organization (WHO) and opened in September.
Like all units run by NGOs, it is under-resourced and overrun by demand, forced to fill in for a public health infrastructure that has been decimated by 14 years of civil war and grinding poverty.
Although a "go slow" campaign was officially due to start on Friday, the clinic has been crippled by staff protests all week.
- 'We're risking our lives' -
"Most of the workers are no longer coming to work. The few ones who come don't work. We don't have the manpower needed to do the work here at the centre," director Atai Omoruto told reporters before the government clampdown.
Omoruto said the centre had been designed for a maximum capacity of 150 beds but had been forced to take in 300 patients.
Alphonso Wesseh, representing the clinic's healthcare workers, told AFP the government had refused to pay benefits for dealing with Ebola and salaries were as low as $250 a month.
"We cannot work under these conditions. We are risking our lives every day and the government remains insensitive to our plight. This is not human."
Ebola, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids, has infected around 8,000 people and killed almost half of them.
Liberia, the country hit hardest by the outbreak, has seen more than 2,000 deaths -- including 94 healthcare workers -- from the haemorrhagic fever which the virus causes.
The government announced on Wednesday it was postponing nationwide senatorial elections which had been due on Tuesday next week, with no new date yet announced.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her counterparts in Sierra Leone and Guinea pressed the heads of the International Monetary Fund, United Nations and World Bank on Thursday for a more rapid rollout of support to fight the epidemic.
"This will also require support for compensation to healthcare workers who, for fear of the risk involved, have refused or are reluctant to return to work," she told the Washington conference via video link.
The United Nations said on Friday it had quarantined 41 personnel from its Liberia mission, including 20 soldiers, following a second Ebola infection among its staff.
The measure came two days after the mission, known as UNMIL, announced an "international staff member" working in its medical department tested positive after complaining of symptoms consistent with the Ebola virus.