Healing words: how press freedom is being threatened by the coronavirus pandemic

“People’s stories must be told and politicians must be held to account if societies are to rebuild themselves,” writes Meera Selva
7th April 2020

Journalists are writing the first draft of history, frantically typing out their stories on what it means to have societies go into lockdown, as governments use the crisis as an opportunity to clamp down on the press.

In many cases the attack on press freedom has come from countries with a long history of censoring uncomfortable news. The IPI points out that in China, news websites have been shut down, social media protests criticising authorities have been clocked and citizen journalists have been targeted directly. But as this map from Index on Censorship, which has been monitoring COVID–19 related attacks on press freedom worldwide, shows, the erosions to press freedom are happening everywhere.

The types of attacks on press freedom can be divided roughly into five areas: a misuse of emergency legislation, a clampdown on ‘unpatriotic’ reporting, restrictions on travel and press passes, abuse of misinformation laws, and an attack on whistleblowers.

The picture is not all bleak. This is a time when communicating with the public, sharing data and information is more important than ever, and in many places journalists are finding their voice.

In Pakistan, journalists, long used to dealing with a hostile government, have found a new, more critical voice. Even pro government outlets have begun to ask tougher questions about the official response to the crisis. In South Africa, Spain and the UK journalists have been designated key workers and have been able to travel down to report, even as much of the rest of the population remains in lockdown. But as the case studies below show, COVID–19 poses a new threat to press freedom at precisely the moment it should be defended.

1. Emergency legislation.

Several governments have declared a state of emergency over COVID–19, suspending rights and norms that are used to protect free speech and media freedom. Most strikingly, Hungary has passed an indefinite emergency decree, effectively suspending parliamentary democracy and a prison sentence of up to five years for spreading “false information,” adding what many journalists fear will be another weapon on the government’s attack against independent journalism.

In Jordan too the government has legislation designed for war, disaster or epidemics that gives the Prime Minister "control of messages, newspapers, publications, drawings, and all means of expression, propaganda and advertising before they are published to seize, confiscate, disable them and close places of their preparation." Reporters in the region say the law is already having a chilling effect, with journalists self-censoring for fear of retribution.

Israel too has used emergency legislation to vastly increase its power of surveillance of its own population.

2. Unpatriotic reporting.

For a global pandemic, reporting on COVID–19 has taken on a national tone. Each country has focused on securing its borders, counting deaths within its boundaries and comparing death rates, lockdown times and testing rates to those of other countries. An ability to cope with the outbreak has in many places become a case of national pride. Critical reporting is unhelpful for morale. In India, hours before announcing a lockdown, Narendra Modi asked 20 key media owners and editors to take a positive tone to their coverage, highlighting government actions and downplaying criticisms. This general tone of being unwilling to hear criticism has spilled over into other areas too.

3. Travel and permit restrictions.

COVID–19 has put the world into lockdown, and it is little surprise that restrictions on travel have extended to journalists. In the Philippines, the President’s office banned all journalists from traveling to areas in lockdown without a specific identification card issued by his communications office. Several media organizations did apply, but the system was unable to cope with all the applications so only a few passes have been issued and apply only to individual reporters. If they get sick or have to self quarantine, a colleague will not be able to take their place.

Governments have also weaponised press accreditation to expel foreign journalists. China revoked the press passes of several foreign correspondents working for US papers in Beijing and expelled them from the country. Egyptian authorities revoked the press pass of Ruth Michaelson from The Guardian after she reported on a study that said that Egypt probably had more cases of COVID–19 than official figures suggested.

4. Misuse of Misinformation laws.

The laws against spreading misinformation are being used, unsurprisingly, to attack journalists who stray from the official line either through their news outlets or social media.

In Yemen Mohammed al-Sharai, the deputy head of the Saba news agency, was suspended after he tweeted details of what he said were the first cases of COVID–19 in Yemen. He later deleted the tweet, saying they were not confirmed, but was also suspended from his job for “dissemination of misinformation on social media.” The Russian parliament has also approved a package of laws that include a jail term of up to five years for spreading ‘fake news’ on the pandemic.

5. Clampdown on whistleblowers.

Several authorities have taken steps that prevent journalists accessing the information they need to report on the news. In many cases this includes a clampdown on potential whistleblowers. Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who sounded an early warning about COVID–19 was detained in December for ‘spreading false rumours’ and forced to sign a police document admitting he had breached the law, only to be officially exonerated after he died from the virus.

In the UK, the Doctors Association found evidence that doctors and nurses in the country’s public hospitals were being told by their management not to speak out about shortages in personal protective equipment.

In other countries information has become harder to access. In Brazil, deadlines for Freedom of Information requests have been suspended.

Journalists are still doing extraordinary work, putting themselves at risk to report on a pandemic that is turning global systems upside down on an unprecedented scale. This pandemic must be documented, analysed and recorded. People’s stories must be told and politicians must be held to account if societies are to rebuild themselves. It is vital that journalism continues.

With thanks to Daniela Pinheiro, Saleh Al-Batati, Miriam Grace Go, Kate Bartlett, Lubna Jerar, Faten Jebai, Tejas Herad, Shiza Khan, and many other journalists.