COVID-19 is spawning a global press-freedom crackdown

March 25, 2020
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of WHO | Photo: YouTube

In his remarks to the media and the public, World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom has regularly emphasized that accurate, timely information is essential to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet around the world, governments are cracking down on journalists and implementing sweeping restrictions under the guise of combating misinformation and “fake news.”

In recent days, police in Venezuela violently detained a journalist and social media commentator, Darvinson Rojas, in reprisal for reporting on COVID-19 in Miranda State. In Iran, the government has imposed sweeping restrictions on coverage, including in the country’s Kurdish region, as part of a systematic effort to downplay the scope of the public health crisis. Egypt, similarly, has pressured journalists to downplay the number of infections, going so far as to revoke the credentials of a Guardian correspondent and reprimanding the bureau chief for the New York Times because of a tweet. In Turkey, seven journalists were detained in reprisal for their reporting, according to a local media monitoring group.

In South Africa, which has long positioned itself as a press freedom leader in Africa, the government has enacted a new law that makes it a crime to publish “disinformation” about the COVID-19 pandemic. In Azerbaijan, which is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, the president, Ilham Aliyev, recently proclaimed that battling COVID-19 could require a crackdown on the opposition. New legislation proposed in Hungary would punish anyone who publishes “false information” about the coronavirus, leaving it up to the repressive government of Viktor Orbán to decide what’s true and punishing violators with up to five years in prison. And in Honduras the government responded to the outbreak by suspending the clause of the constitution that prohibits censorship and protects the right to free expression.

But the news, such as it is, gets worse. Despite the fact that China’s suppression of information and reporting on the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan in December delayed the response to the emerging contagion, the government is now using its state media and global propaganda network to try and rewrite history. State censorship and active information management is a critical part of the response that China claims it used to bring COVID-19 under control, even as the pandemic spreads through the rest of the world. More alarmingly, this framing, including malicious rumors that the virus was developed by the US military as a biological weapon, has gained currency around the world, including in Iran and Russia.

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In normal times, Western democracies would be able to effectively push back against this narrative by citing examples of how open, transparent, and critical media coverage has supported an effective government response. But such examples are few and far between. In the United States, false and misleading information from President Trump has been amplified by a network of commentators on social media and on Fox News, delaying the public response in the country. Even as Trump has pivoted, now casting himself as a “wartime” president, he has continued to lash out at journalists who ask critical questions, most recently NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander, whom Trump labeled a terrible reporter for asking the softest of questions.

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Instead of making broad arguments about the critical importance of press freedom and leading by example, the US has been engaged in an entirely unproductive visa war with China, which has done little more than provide cover for China’s ever-expanding crackdown on the international media. It began in mid-February when the State Department designated Chinese state media outlets operating in the US as “foreign missions,” requiring that personnel information be provided to the US government. The following day, China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters, citing as justification a headline printed in the paper’s opinion section.

Next the US retaliated by capping the number of visas available to employees of Chinese state media operating in the US. China then revoked the visas of at least thirteen reporters working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. (This morning the publishers of all three media organizations called on the Chinese government to reverse its decision.) Last week China escalated further, by forcing out the local news assistants working for American media.  The dwindling international media presence in China and tightened restrictions reduce critical scrutiny of the government’s remarkable claims, including its recent assertion that community spread of COVID-19 has been halted in China.

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In normal times, groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization I lead, would respond to the expanding global crackdown by systematically documenting the violations, generating global and domestic media coverage, and leaning on sympathetic governments and international institutions to stand up for press freedom and the rights of journalists. We’re still doing that, but that approach is less likely to yield results at a time when curtailing the spread of COVID-19 has become a global imperative. There’s a growing acceptance of the false view that the dramatic measures required may come at the expense of civil liberties and democratic rights.

At CPJ, our focus is on creating a systematic record of the growing violations, providing journalists around the world with the comprehensive and up-to-date safety information they need to cover the pandemic (our advisory has been translated into twenty-three languages), and advocating for the release of the more than 250 journalists around the world who have been jailed for their work and whose lives could be in danger as COVID-19 spreads through the world’s prisons.

Amid efforts to beat back a global pandemic of a kind unseen in more than a century, and to prop up a global economy on the brink of depression, it’s hard to focus on long-term consequences. But we must be mindful that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, we may be left with a narrative, being written by China, that government control over information was essential to combating the crisis. That would be a devastating blow to the global information system, one that could endure even as the memories of the terrible pandemic we are currently facing slowly fade.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.