Rumors and trustworthy sources

K Press Perspective

“During this sensitive time, it is important that citizens receive their information from trustworthy sources. The only sources you should receive your information from are the Risk Communication Committees from the National and State COVID-19 Task Forces, the National and State Public Information Offices, and State Public Radio Stations,” FSM President David Panuelo said during his address to the nation regarding the person who tested positively for COVID-19 aboard the MS Chief Mailo and that finding’s impact on the FSM.

Seemingly within moments after MS Chief Mailo arrived in waters off Pakin and radioed to the Pohnpei Port Authority asking for permission to dock for reprovisioning, the rumor mill cranked up. It didn’t reach full speed until someone, in advance of any official word, started the, in this case, absolutely correct rumor that one of the ship’s occupants had tested positive for COVID-19.  From that point on, the rumor machine revved up and hit its highest RPM’s.

One of the rumors was that seven people aboard the vessel were tested positive aboard the vessel. That was false. Another was that one of the ship’s occupants had jumped ship and swam to Sokehs island and authorities couldn’t find him.  That was patently false and the ship is still under heavy security. A person who had access to the Port, whether a PPA employee or not, said that the person who tested positive was at the isolation unit on shore in Dekehtik. He said he’d seen the person with his own eyes. Certainly he saw someone, but it wasn’t the person who had tested positive for COVID-19. That person is still aboard the MS Chief Mailo, isolated from shipmates in the dispensary. He may have seen medical responders entering quarantine, but the person with COVID-19 was not among that group.

The rumors picked up speed from their first telling to become the gospel according to the last person who heard them, embellished them, and retold them. Businesses closed on the strength of the rumors.  Grocery stores were suddenly packed.

If you’ll allow me the luxury of a moment of “Monday morning quarterbacking”, the “reliable sources” released nothing when they easily could have and probably should have. Even just a preliminary message confirming that, that though there was in fact one person in isolation aboard the vessel who had tested positively for COVID-19 aboard the vessel, no contact had been made with the public and that there was nothing to fear might have helped.  Probably not. People believe what they want to believe, more so when there is a vacuum of authoritative information, but it might have helped.

Instead, the messages came out only after several joint task force meetings. Unfortunately, when they did, some of the messages seemed to conflict with what could be demonstratively proved to be what actually

happened.  President Panuelo announced that “The team of four testers, after confirming the positive test on one individual, voluntarily and willingly went straight into quarantine at the Emergency Medical Unit in Dekehtik.” This was not a lie. It was, however, worded in a way that made it appear, even after multiple readings that the responders got off the boat after performing the test and went straight into quarantine, though that is not what he said. He said, “after confirming the positive test”, not “after arriving back at the dock.”

In fact, the responders did go into quarantine after receiving notice that one person had tested positive.  However, they didn’t, in fact, go “straight into quarantine” even after that notice. Pohnpei’s Information Officer (PIO) says that word of the positive test arrived during a task force meeting, and after some discussion the Task Force decided that the responders should go into quarantine. During that meeting the Chair of the task force made the call to the team of responders telling them to go to quarantine. The PIO said that several hours later they had not yet entered quarantine and, in the meantime, did have interaction with the public.

The responders DID receive negative COVID-19 tests upon entry into quarantine.  Seven days later, all still tested negative for the virus. On the release of information regarding the final negative test for the medical officials, the Pohnpei government, in responding to the rumor of whether or not the medical officials had any contact with the public did NOT release the information that in fact, they had done. What they DID say was what should have been fully said at least a week earlier in a way that we could all understand. It probably would have been if all of the Task Forces and Government leaders had been effectively communicating together and if all had been effectively communicating with the public. It was then, seven days after the positive test that the public received the message that, in fact, no COVID protocol was breached by the medical responders who performed the test. Because all four had been protected by Personal Protective Equipment, the COVID response protocol did not require them to enter quarantine.  They did so as an extra added precaution but at NO time did their presence in the community put the community at risk.

Yes, it’s important that members of the community get their information from reliable sources. It is equally important that the information be as completely accurate and straight forward as possible. It should also be transparent and not spun if it is to be believable in this age of rampant skepticism.

What I have begun to discover is that even State governments and the National Government are skeptical of each other’s public information, and that doesn’t help.

On Monday evening after KPress had gone to press, the Pohnpei Public Information Officer, a reliable source of information, contacted me with news I thought was important to get out some time much sooner than the biweekly publication allows.  I spent an hour asking questions and verifying what I had been told regarding the information that the PIO had given me, that Chief Mailo was in waters off Pakin, that the Pohnpei Task Force knew nothing of its eminent arrival and that Chuuk had said no to the request to receive the ship after return from the Philippines. It was characterized to me that the Governor had requested that the ship not land in Weno.

According to a scathing letter from the Chairman of Chuuk’s COVID-19 Task Force, it was the Task Force that asked the National Government to send the vessel to Pohnpei because they were not yet prepared to receive it and that request came before the MS Chief Mailo ever left the Philippines.  They claimed that my breaking news item, which I wrote that I would develop further as more information came in was that, oh-so-convenient phrase we have all heard all too often over the last four years, it was “fake news”. A representative of the Chuuk government demanded a retraction saying it was not the Governor who made the request, but the State’s COVID-19 Task Force.  I suppose the implication was that the Governor knew nothing about the request to ask the National Government to instead send the ship to Pohnpei.

Their letter accused me of irresponsible reporting for accepting the word of the Pohnpei Public Information Officer before reporting though he is on the list of reliable sources of information,.

They also sent a copy of a letter from Dr. Livingston Taulung, Chairman of the National COVID-19 Taskforce as purported proof that Pohnpei knew the ship was coming. The letter was dated the day after the ship actually arrived in waters off Pakin and asked for help. It said that as members of the Maritime Working Group of the National Task Force, Pohnpei knew about the arrival of the vessel.  But even as of today, Pohnpei insists it knew nothing about the arrival of the vessel until it actually arrived, low on supplies.

This morning, Governor Reed Oliver, a line in an email to some staff members in charge of public information from the Pohnpei Task Force, the PIO, and Public Affairs telling them that they are to include The Kaselehlie Press in information they release in addition to the State radio stations, put what I’m thinking rather well. “…We've experienced how information were received and twisted at times to fit or satisfy one side, instead of sending out the truth and correct information on the events, meetings, results , etc,etc.. so the people can be better informed and be able to follow what is needed to help resolve the ongoing ordeal of COVID-19 which has spurred so many other reactions and feedback from information not so clear to the people.”

Admirably, he added, “…we will also expect people to criticize- and yes- it is part of the way things go-and that should not deter our effort in helping the people understand what is the truth.”

I believe with all my heart and will say so until the end of time, that government sources mean well in terms of their information sharing, and they are handling it the way they think is appropriate and, for the most part, it is not in their best interest nor in their desire to release patently false information.

There has never been more news coming out of the FSM President’s office than there has been since President David Panuelo took office. He committed to transparency right from the beginning in his inaugural address and since that time it is a rare day that something doesn’t come from his information officer. I respect, appreciate and commend that effort. He is handling it the way he thinks it should be handled. I should leave that at full stop but it would be disingenuous.

The policy has become that no information is to be released from the Executive Branch except through one person, the Public Information Officer.  He is the one source of information and he does a great job at the job he’s been given to do. We are good friends and I admire him.  Every single message that he releases is first edited and approved by the Chief of Staff and by the President.  That’s fine, but it does not encourage an outside critical look.

This is not at all to say that I believe that they knowingly release false information.  I don’t believe that to be true. However, during a conversation with the Chief of Staff about my frustrations of not knowing anything until the news comes out in “sanitized form”, he asked me what I thought I was missing. I was too tongue tied at the moment, or maybe just not quick enough in thought to give him the response that only occurred to me later and has occurred to me on a daily basis since that conversation took place which should have been, “How could I possibly know what I’m missing if nothing comes out that is not already in a press release?”

I was flummoxed to discover when I asked about the issue of PUA taxation that is on the front page that the spokesperson who is in charge of information was instructed not to discuss the matter specifically with me. The person in charge of Congress information said that she was instructed to tell me that the documents regarding the issue that came to Congress from the President’s office were “not theirs to share”.

There is a quote hanging on the bulletin board on my wall in my office. Geckoes and other creatures have stained the paper brown in many places but it still hangs there and I look at it often as a reminder.  It’s a quote by Peter Foster, not the conman Peter Foster, but a respected journalist from British newspaper, The Telegraph. He wrote, “Part of the challenge of being a good journalist is identifying the gap between actual reality and what governments and politicians would rather have you believe.”

The quote says nothing about needing to be in an adversarial relationship with them but it serves as a reminder to me when I sometimes forget.

For the most part, I DO believe that there is no systemic intention to withhold information until little matters like withholding of documents arise, and they are rare.  Yes, the public should get its information from reliable sources. I simply hope that it is getting what it should have and what it deserves to have. The environment tends to makes that a difficult task indeed despite noble ambitions on all sides.

Bill Jaynes

Managing Editor

The Kaselehlie Press

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